Monday, June 15, 2009

Defending Angels

I had been looking forward to reading Mary Stanton's Defending Angels (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008) for quite a while. It had been sitting in my "to be read" pile for some time before I finally got to it this week. The premise was intriguing--a young Savannah attorney, Bree Winston-Beaufort, assumes the law practice of her late uncle. Soon she learns it is no ordinary law, but Celestial Law that she'll be expected to practice, where the clients are dead and must be defended in Celestial Court. Obviously it is a paranormal mystery, and that was fine with me, in fact I was excited to break into that genre a little (although I enjoy Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books). Bree assembles a crack team of support staff to help her defend a dead client (whose murder she also must solve), and is guided throughout by mysterious advice from her former law professor. Sometimes the allusions to all things celestial came off as corny rather than clever: Her sister Angelica breezes into town and stays with Bree; the law practice is in an old mansion near a Murderer's Cemetary on Angelcus Street. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, this book was terribly disappointing and not at all what I expected. Certainly it is up to every author to write the kind of book they want, and many will differ from my view of this book.

Bree does not seem to have any savvy or even curiosity. She approaches almost anything that people tell her with an "Oh well" approach. It was difficult, too, to understand much of Bree's motivation. Too often, Bree feels like she just sort of lets stuff happen to her rather than question or express genuine concern. I did not find her to be a very sympathetic character, which is another of book's several problems. The dialogue and backstory felt like filler, not contributing to substantive plot points. The large supporting cast of characters is odd and underdeveloped.

Originally I thought the concept was interesting and innovative, but the more I read, the more it seemed to closely echo Albert Brooks's 1991 film, Defending Your Life. The central puzzle of this book was rather simple, and thus not very compelling as a mystery.

I personally think Ms. Stanton does not make full use of the Savannah, Georgia setting, in fact what could be the perfect setting for this kind of mystery. I did not get any real sense that place was important, inasmuch as Savannah's mysterious, Gothic details were not an integral part of the story, which seems like a lost opportunity.

Perhaps the order was too tall for a book like this: to create a whole new system of law (basically) and set your character to work in it, a character trained in the codified laws of Georgia. It required quite a bit of world-building that just seemed missing: You've got to have the basic system of law itself, then the new Celestial Law, then the local authorities, usual suspects, etc. In addition there is the paranormal element, which here feels contrived. I won't spoil the actual happenings for those interested in reading it for themselves.

Finally, I was increasingly annoyed by the heavy quotations from Milton and others at the beginning of every chapter. They did not contribute to the story (as do, for example, the herb lore at the beginning of chapters in the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert), and seemed woefully dissonant with the novel itself.

Ms. Stanton (who also writes as Claudia Bishop) deserves credit for trying to branch out in a very different direction than the typical "cozy" mystery. She succeeded in that regard, but the story itself does not.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Murder is Binding

Lorna Barrett (the nom de plume of writer Lorraine Bartlett) has written an excellent first mystery novel in Murder is Binding (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008). The setting is the small town of Stoneham, New Hampshire, where local developer Bob Kelly has leased downtown property to a series of small bookshop owners (each shop focuses on a particular genre, like cookbooks, mystery, history, etc.). Tricia Miles, the owner of mystery bookshop Haven't Got a Clue, is the lead character in this story and in the series.

When the owner of Tricia's neighboring store, Doris Gleason of The Cookery, turns up dead, Tricia is left to sort out the mess in order to provide peace of mind not only for herself, but for the tranquil Stoneham. Tricia's sister, Angelica breezes into town for what turns out to be more than just a short visit, and ends up helping Tricia solve the murder. What's more, the sheriff is intent to pin the Doris's murder on Tricia. The "cozy" meter registers pretty high here: small, idyllic town (more like paradise... a town full of bookstores!); Tricia lives above her bookshop; Angelica is a gourmet cook; a meddling sheriff; and more.

Lorna Barrett is a mystery writer of great talent. I especially appreciated the way she brought the retail environment of Haven't Got a Clue to life, a venue I suspect that will provide endless opportunities for future plots (Susan Wittig Albert has used China Bayles's herb business in this way for upwards of 17 books!). Barrett is also part of a new generation of cozy writers who have endowed their characters with complicated social relationships. The subplot of familial fractures in the sister-bond between Tricia and Angelica will offer many opportunities to really understand the motivation for these characters in future novels, as it did in Binding. She also touched on the generational problems we all will face in the characters of Mr. Everett, Grace and Doris Gleason (I won't spoil the plot by giving details!). At the end of the book, I was also left wondering if Mr. Everett and Grace have a future together?

There are other themes Ms. Barrett may pursue, such as community development and the arrival of "big box" stores in small towns (a theme also present in Sheila Connolly's One Bad Apple, a cozy set in neighboring Massachusetts). I'm also looking forward to the development of Angelica's relocation to Stoneham, and how that affects her relationship with Tricia (and her business).

My only quarrel is with the character of Sheriff Wendy Adams, whose motivation was somewhat difficult to believe. If Adams is to be Tricia's foil throughout the series, we will need to learn much more about her and her background. I realize this is not a police procedural, but it seems that any sheriff (even in a small town) would want to give the aesthetic of a proper investigation. This is not a major criticism and certainly does not detract from the many enjoyments of the novel. Personally I didn't find any redeeming quality in Adams, and I'd like to see her knocked off (or moved away) soon, but I am only a reader and it is always up to the author to populate the universe they create.

The action toward the last third of the book was downright suspenseful, and the climactic scene (in the bookshop of course) is much more realistic than one typically finds in a cozy mystery. I applaud Ms. Barrett's first outing and look forward to the next installments.