by Judy Boettcher, contemporary (2006)
Wings ePress, $6.00, ISBN 1-59705-142-X
Judy Boettcher's Sweeter Than Honey is the second book in a series featuring Honey Maria Loffington and her twin brother Brad. Both of them are private investigators. I haven't read the first book in the series, Awake, My Love, but I understand that that book features Brad finding his love. This story is naturally Honey's as she attempts to help the downtrodden find justice while finding her own Mr Right in the process.
This story is an inspirational story, by the way, so if you are expecting a naughty story featuring vampires and werewolves as every other independently published story out there seems to be nowadays, you're so out of luck. However, where there are mentions of Jesus Christ and scenes involving the power of prayer, this book is not heavy in the sermonizing at all. The author shows that her characters are Christians and if her main characters pray, that's because it's in their character to do so. If the author is trying to spread the word, she's doing it by showing the reader what her characters are doing instead of figuratively reaching out to grab the reader's neck and preaching to the reader. Am I making sense here?
The plot of this story is pretty straightforward: as the last person to see Stanley Green right before he was arrested for trying to steal a car, Honey is called in by lawyer Allan Renton to be a witness on Stanley's behalf. Honey believes that Stanley is innocent since she was discussing with Stanley about the circumstances behind the death of Stanley's father Arthur right before Stanley gets conveniently arrested for carjacking the day after. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to see that something is not right about this situation. However, complicating matters of the heart is the fact that the court reporter, Mark Ryan. Now this is where my not reading the previous book in the series puts me at a disadvantage because he and Honey have met previously and I'd assume it's in the previous book. They parted on less than amicable terms, or so I'd gathered, but really, on the whole I'm still missing a few pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is the relationship between those two.
Sweeter Than Honey is pretty a long court case. I have to hand it to Ms Boettcher: if anything, she manages to make me feel like I've been sitting in a courtroom following the proceedings of a case because she manages to describe the setting of a courtroom very well indeed. Unfortunately, the mystery by itself isn't the most interesting for me to sit through over two hundred pages for. Ms Boettcher presents a case that is probably a little too simplistic - someone stole a car and there's a gun that may be Stanley's, and Stanley's father may have been murdered - so the mystery remains too much of a linear and straightfoward one to the point of being dull.
As I follow the case, I am reminded of that time when I followed a real discussion on a popular message board where the regulars complain that they have problems telling apart the main actors in a TV show with an African-American cast. I've seen a few episodes of that show and I'm like, "Huh? Come on, it's not that hard to tell the guys apart because apart from their skin color, they look, speak, and behave very differently!" It's all about that politically incorrect but unfortunately accurate at times punchline about how to some white folks, all African-American men look alike. For a while the court is trying to establish whether the car thief seen by a witness is African-American, as if that is enough to determine that Stanley is guilty of the crime he is charged for. I don't know if this is Ms Boettcher's deliberate decision to do so in her story, but she manages to send a pretty obvious but not that blatantly obvious message in this story about the prejudices held by some people against an African-American man.
I really feel like I'm missing some key information about Honey and Mark because I don't really know why they aren't on speaking terms at the start of this story. Therefore, I can't really start to care too much about their conflicts, which revolve around some benign if rather childish scenes of them circling around each other. While Mark is a pretty nondescript character in this story, I like what the author is trying to do with Honey. Honey, like her name, is trying to be an optimistic person with a sense of humor even as her faith is constantly being tested by some of the things she encounters in her line of work. In fact, I like what the author is trying to do with her story because I think Honey will be a pretty interesting main character if she is developed better. She's tough and she's intelligent. Honey's optimism can sometimes come off as too much of a Pollyanna trip but Ms Boettcher manages to refrain from turning Honey into an outright Pollyanna character. Honey also doesn't let her feelings for Mark distract her from the quest to clear Stanley's name, another reason why I like this woman.
It's just that I feel this book really spends too much time in the courtroom. I'm not saying that we need some terrorists or nuclear warheads to spice things up, instead I find Ms Boettcher spends too much time detailing the events in the courtroom in a straightforward manner that I sometimes feel like I'm reading the courtroom transcriber's report. Many aspects of the story are also depicted too much in a black and white manner, such as Stanley being a stereotypical Noble African American character that could have with a halo and a T-shirt that says, "Repent, white folks!" and some key witnesses that are straight out of Xenophobe Hickweed casting central. The only character that shows signs of ambiguity and complexity is Allan Renton who isn't above manipulating events to ensure a victory in court - he isn't entirely a bad guy or a good guy, he's just who he is, and kudos to Ms Boettcher for letting Allan do his thing without turning him into a villain. On the other hand, I find it really odd that Honey is worried that her relationship with Mark may jeopardize the case but she thinks nothing of going out with Allan for dinner.
The resolution of the case is pretty well done in the sense that many things about the case makes sense and the last few chapters when Honey and Brad really get into the groove of investing Arthur Green's death are pretty enjoyable in the same way I enjoy a better-written episode of Matlock or Murder, She Wrote: someone wanting to find faults can no doubt locate a few plot holes or procedural inaccuracy here and there but still, everything comes together in a most enjoyable manner. I wish the entire story has been like this instead of having Honey plant her behind in the courtroom.
I really want to like Sweeter Than Honey because of what it could have been. Honey is a pretty interesting and capable heroine (especially for someone with her name, heh). However, for much too long this story comes off like a dry transcription of a court case with dramatic enhancements of some of the more overused crime drama conventions. And sometimes it isn't dramatic enhancement as much as outright melodrama when it comes to some of the scenes in the courtroom. All I can say is, the potential is there but unfortunately Ms Boettcher doesn't quite succeed in delivering fully.
Oh, and what's with the cover, people? It looks like a Sweet Valley High of Surly Little Girls thing.
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