I had been looking forward to reading Mary Stanton's Defending Angels (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008) for quite a while. It's been sitting in my "to be read" pile for some time. The premise was intriguing--a young Savannah attorney, Bree Winston-Beaufort, assumes the law pratice 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. 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 substanitive 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, a rather ideal setting for this kind of mystery. I did not get any real sense of place inasmuch as Savannah's mysterious, gothic details were not an integral part of the story, which seems to me like a lost opportunity.
Perhaps the order was too tall for a book like this: create a whole new system of law (basically) and set your character to work in it. First you have to review and establish the basic system of American law itself, then the new Celestial Law, then the local authorities, usual suspects, etc. It's a tall order for this kind of novel. In addition there is the paranormal element, which here feels contrived. I won't spoil these happenings for those interested in reading it for themselves.
I was 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.
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.