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.