"Angel's Advocate" by Mary Stanton
Berkley Prime Crime, 292 pp., $7.99 (paperback only)
Reviewed by David Marshall James
When 28-year-old attorney Brianna "Bree" Winston-Beaufort inherited her Great-Uncle Franklin's law practice in Savannah, she got worlds more than she first realized.
For, in addition to a "temporal," or earthly, practice, she must defend the deceased in their appeals for lighter eternal sentences.
Not that Bree can overturn a tormented soul's case unto the Pearly Gates, but she can knock a few millenia off a client's sentence and perhaps effect a transfer up a few Dantean circles of hell, or even into Purgatory.
Nevertheless, in this second Beaufort & Company mystery by seasoned writer Mary Stanton (aka Claudia Bishop), Bree remains fairly down-to-earth, although with friends in High Places, and some fairly grisly (and odoriferous) enemies in low ones.
The author does a laudable job of depicting Savannah and its environs, and she creates a commendable cast of characters who remain oblivious to Bree's advocacy of an otherworldly clientele. She resides with a younger sister, Antonia, in their great-uncle's townhouse by the Savannah River. Who better a sidekick than one's own sibling? Antonia is pursuing a career in local theater, with sights on the great beyond (in her for-instance, L.A.), and that serves as a springboard for some fun subplotting.
Police Lt. Sam Hunter and D.A. Cordelia Eastburn both come down hard on Bree, yet they're both fond of her-- Hunter in particular, and they serve as praiseworthy counterparts to the protagonist.
Bree's love life is in shambles, as she kicked boyfriend Payton McAllister, also an attorney, to the curb. He still crops up, however, like sour emotional chaff. Bree really has a thing for an old flame, Abel Trask, who was employed at her parents' estate in North Carolina. Fate has sent him-- and his semi-invalided wife-- to his deceased brother's horse farm, just outside of Savannah.
On the other hand, Bree's colleagues at Beaufort & Company-- Ron, Petru, and Lavinia-- aren't as engaging as the "real" personages. Fortunately, the author doesn't over-emphasize them. Bree's nonterrestrial vocation plays better on the level that the nose-twitching does in "Bewitched." Until she can create some characters as endearing and humorous as Endora, Uncle Arthur, and Aunt Clara, the author shouldn't overplay her hand with the fantastical elements of her plotting.
Of the three Beaufort & Company employees, Ron shows the most potential as an affable sidekick, while Petru is a bit of a mistake. Lavinia proves way too somber and dark. As Bree must confront plenty of forbidding, grave (literally and figuratively) characters in this branch of her practice, everyone she works with on a day-to-day basis ought to be a blithe spirit. If this series becomes too Bram Stoker and not enough Noel Coward, it's going to lose some of its drawing power.
Bree's representation of an ultra-rich, utterly out-of-control teenager (the daughter of a friend of Bree's Aunt Cissy-- also a nicely drawn character) who has robbed a Girl Scout of her cookie "dough" leads to Bree's discovery that the girl's father did not die in an automobie wreck, as accepted, but was actually murdered.
While Bree investigates the dysfunctional thicket of the girl's family and the thorny aspects of the family business, she seeks proof of the murder to take to Sam and Cordelia. Meanwhile, she's working on the "celestial case" of the girl's deceased father.
This setup allows for a nicely constructed whodunit. The author's fine-tuned stylistics and "real" characters contribute to a recommended entry in a fresh series that should go far, as long as it strikes a balance between the natural and the supernatural.
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