Heart Vs. Humbug, by M.J. Rodgers

>> Friday, August 11, 2006

Heart Vs. Humbug is book #3 of M.J. Rodgers Justice Inc. series. So far, the first two books have been just ok, but they are at least different from most Harlequins.

He said the law couldn't afford a heart...

Attorney Brett Merlin - alias the Magician - was certain he'd squashed one senior citizen's Christmas crusade against his Scrooge of a client. Until he met opposing counsel, the fiery, flame-haired Octavia Osborne... and his open-and-shut civil suit escalated to murder in the first degree.

Suddenly, the magician of law found himself up against a mistress of legal abracadabra, who pulled more countersuits out of her attorney's brief than Santa did presents out of his sleigh.

What Brett saw as a matter of law, Octavia saw as a matter of heart. Either way, he was out to set some surprising new precedents - both legal and personal.
When I read the first two books in the series, Beauty Vs. the Beast and Baby Vs. the Bar, I had a very similar opinion of them: fascinating legal drama, but mediocre romance and characterization. Heart Vs. Humbug wasn't much different, other than the fact that the legal angle, though nice enough, wasn't as interesting as that in the other books. This one was a C+.

Granted, the last book featured a psychologist accused of killing one of the personalities of a Multiple Personality Disorder patient, and that's hard to top. But even considering that, the case here is more than ho-hum enough in its own right. The plot involves a Senior Citizen Centre locked in a battle with their landlord, who has raised the rent in order to force them out so he can develop the land into a nice, profitable complex. Yawn.

Heroine Octavia Osborne (a Justice Inc. associate) has been asked to help by her grandmother Mab, one of the Centre's director, while our hero, Brett Merlin, a lawyer himself, is helping his uncle, the landlord in question (but don't worry, the mean Scroogen isn't a blood relation of Brett's; he's merely married to his aunt).

The first sections of the book are the best, because they show Octavia and Brett locked in legal battle, and that's where Rodgers is always great. I very much enjoyed the ways each found to outmanouver the other, and most especially the courtroom scenes. Those were witty and fun. And I loved that Octavia tended to get the best out of Brett (not a double standard in this particular case... it's just that Scroogen was so mean and horrid!).

But after a while, when the legal drama turned to murder mystery, things became pretty dull. The characters didn't help. Octavia and Brett were the only ones who showed even minimal depths; most of the others were pretty wooden. Scroogen was the worst: a more cardboard villain I've never seen.

And speaking of Octavia and Brett's depths, that was somewhat disappointing, because these characters had huge potential that Rodgers ended up wasting. I was pretty interested in the issues that were set up, especially their views of the law and what it means to uphold it. There's Octavia, with her attitude that what's important is the spirit of the law, and there's Brett, who thinks it's most important to follow the law to the letter. It would have been a fascinating subject to develop, especially given Brett's history of putting The Law above everything else, even his ex-wife.

However, the space that could have been spent exploring how these two very different people can manage to get along in a relationship is spent on the boring plot. I was especially disappointed at the end, when Brett makes a certain gesture that's absolutely HUGE for him, and we don't get to see any details about why and how he came to that decision.

All in all, a book even fans of this series might skip without really losing much. There's almost no Justice Inc. stuff here. There's only a tiny cameo appearance by AJ (we don't really learn anything about her, anyway), plus a hint about something mysterious in Adam's past, about some kind of spate of law-breaking after his wife left him, but since Adam hasn't really shown up much in the whole series, it was hard to get too worked up about it.


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