Wendy: A dash of humor, a hint of quirkiness, equal parts murder and mayhem, plus a pinch of romance aren’t the right mix to make Stephanie Bond’s In Deep Voodoo a spellbinding read. A few key ingredients are missing from this romantic suspense. Bond seasons the story with a smidgeon of the paranormal when a heaping tablespoon of the otherworldly is called for. The end product labors over casting suspicion on the large cast of characters, but not enough effort goes into making the Happily Ever After believable.
Penny Francisco is an average genre divorcee: her marriage ended when she walked in on her husband banging some cheap floozy. Like any good heroine, until that point Penny had overlooked her husband’s shortcomings, his balding, and their lack of sexual chemistry. And, like any good doormat, Penny continued to love her ex-husband, Deke Black, despite the fact that he let the bang-worthy cheap floozy, Sheena Linder, move into the grand Victorian he and Penny had shared during their marriage and then allowed Sheena to paint the house Pepto-Bismol Pink.
The dissolution of their marriage, coupled with the humiliation, hurt and anger Penny feels are enough to motivate her to violence. Towards a Deke voodoo doll, at least. Penny’s real trouble begins when Deke falls victim to the very violence Penny committed on the voodoo doll.
The whole of the story unfolds through Penny’s eyes, even though she isn’t always a heroine it’s comfortable to follow. Instead of feeling in step with Penny, wanting to root for her, too often Penny’s path is a well traveled one, so familiar and predictable it’s difficult not to question why Penny doesn’t know what’s coming next. When Penny enters the Victorian she shared with Deke, the urge to yell, “Don’t go in there. Deke is dead and you’ll be charged with his murder,” is overwhelming. In fact, it overwhelms the desire to continue reading.
By keeping the spotlight on Penny, Bond is able to make every other character in the story, from the litigious Sheena, to the obsessive woodsman Jimmy Scaggs, to the new guy in town B.J. Beaumont, a suspect for Deke’s murder. However, something greater is lost in the process: the love story.
In Deep Voodoo is light on the romance aspect of romantic suspense, but a romance it is no less. As such, the reader knows the hero, B.J., is not a bad guy and that whatever he might have done will be redeemable, just as the reader knows that Penny and B.J. will, eventually, find happiness. Therefore, staying out of B.J. perspective does not cast aspersions on his character, but highlights the quantum leap from the sexual attraction B.J. acts on, to the words of love he professes at story’s end. Had Bond chosen to dip into B.J.’s head, perhaps the evolution from desire to forever could have played out in a linear and convincing fashion. As it is, B.J.’s “I love you,” is hollow.
Additionally, B.J., a pro bono private detective (insert your own joke here), comes to Mojo on a missing persons case. While he and Penny work to clear Penny’s name regarding Deke’s murder, B.J. continues to search for two missing young women. Ultimately, Deke’s murder and the missing women storylines coalesce. Since the book is from Penny’s perspective, her focus—and rightly so—is on her ex-husband’s death. This limits Bonds’ opportunities to unobtrusively weave the second storyline of missing women into Penny’s world view. Again, balancing Penny’s perspective with B.J.’s would have lessened this problem. Without this, when the two plot lines come together in the finale, the result isn’t a seamless reveal of the whole story, instead the unmasking of Deke’s murderer is conjoined with a lesser storyline that’s given unearned importance in the conclusion.
In Deep Voodoo is the first of a three to four book series set in Mojo, Louisiana. Bond spends a wealth of time in this first installment laying ground work and world building the town of Mojo, its long history with voodoo and its odd collection of residences—to say nothing of the many questions raised and unanswered—that one can only hope Bond uses the rest of the series to get the ingredients and proportions for the recipe she’s cooking just right.
HelenKay: Penny Francisco has a crappy apartment and an ex-husband, Deke. Penny thinks she’s having a bad day when she runs into Sheena, Deke’s new girlfriend and an obligatory bimbo. In addition to painting Penny’s beloved house a shocking shade of pink, Sheena announces that Deke has proposed. Penny does what every sane ex-wife would do – she pushes Sheena into traffic.
Unfortunately for Penny, her homicide attempt and Sheena’s resulting lawsuit threats turn out to be the highlight of the day. After meeting a mysterious stranger of the good-looking-male variety and celebrating her divorce via an "emancipation party" complete with Deke voodoo doll, Penny stumbles into the former marital home and finds Deke dead. Penny’s animosity for Deke is well-known and her missing gardening stake – the same one now protruding from Deke’s chest – combine to make Penny the lead suspect.
Add in handsome Cajun private investigator B.J. Beaumont, Penny’s employees, Penny’s college friends, some strange townsfolk, Penny’s divorce lawyer, an angry-for-no-reason cop and the Mayor, and you have some of the cast of characters in In Deep Voodoo. There’s also a storyline about missing women, some strange happenings at the voodoo museum next door to Penny’s store and a voodoo festival. And, yeah, parts of this voodoo death story are even funny.
Bond mixes humor and suspense in In Deep Voodoo. Despite the serious nature of book in terms of dead bodies and missing women, Bond’s voice is generally light. She mixes wit into Penny’s dialog and inner thoughts. The blend of seriousness and charm makes Penny readable and realistic. Her story starts with a familiar romance novel convention – she walks in on Deke and Shenna having sex. From there, Penny’s life unravels, but she holds herself together in public and tries to rebuild for a post-divorce life she never expected. Penny is smart and determined. People gravitate to her, though some of her friends could use a lesson or two in loyalty. Penny’s dumb heroine moments are few, and her immediate attraction to B.J., despite her recent bad luck with men, is refreshing. She doesn’t wallow in woe-is-me emotions and is comfortable with her sexuality.
B.J. is a mystery for a significant portion of the book. He lurks about and pops up whenever needed to lend a hand or move the storyline along. He is the handsome, brooding sort. His character, while slim in description and growth, is a solid partner for Penny.
The large cast of secondary characters gets unwieldy. Bond gives each character a separate persona, but many do not serve any purpose in moving the plot forward. Since there is a follow-up book to In Deep Voodoo, it is possible the introduction here is a set-up for later. If so, many of the introductions could have waited for future books. Others likely are introduced to provide possible suspects for the mystery portion of the book. While understandable, the device falters here due to the sheer number of characters introduced and the number of loose ends left untied at the end.
For a book marketed as a romantic suspense, the balance between the two aspects of the book seems slightly off. This lack of symmetry is a problem. The romance takes off later than the suspense, then rushes to conclusion. As a result the "happily ever after" ending feels forced. In Deep Voodoo is one of those books that would have been enhanced by a satisfying, not perfect, romantic ending.
While the romance wraps up a bit too neatly, the suspense portion of the book pushes on past the last page. Most of the mystery is solved by the end of the book. Not all. According to the ad at the back of In Deep Voodoo, this book sets up the next story. One would guess that the loose ends in In Deep Voodoo will be resolved in the next book in the series. Problem is, the the build-up leaves the reader wanting everything settled in this one.
In Deep Voodoo is a surprisingly light and, at times, fun story set against a very serious backdrop of murder and mayhem. For the most part, the book works thanks to Bond’s compelling voice and her likable heroine. There are some weak points, but the positives outweigh the negatives in this one.
HelenKay’s Response to Wendy: From the title to Deke’s voodoo doll to the museum to the festival, voodoo plays a central role in the book. Or does it? If you take out all the voodoo references, is this still the same book and, if so, is that a good thing?
Wendy’s Response to HelenKay: To voodoo or not to voodoo? I vote not to voodoo. Unfortunately, the voodoo in In Deep Voodoo isn’t integral to the plot, only skin deep when it could have been the bone structure of the story. Take the voodoo doll in Deke’s image out of the divorce party scene and Penny could just as easily raised a glass and said, “To my cheating ex-husband, hope he chokes,” or “He doesn’t deserve to live,” or anything that conveyed the depth of her hurt—and suggested harm befall Deke—would have provided the same circumstantial evidence the voodoo doll does. The other voodoo references have only a glancing blow impact on the story and seem to serve more as a way to connect future stories together.
Wendy’s Final Thought: In Deep Voodoo lacks magic.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: In Deep Voodoo is an interesting combination of romance and suspense, fun and seriousness. While the mix isn’t always perfect, the book is worth a read. Recommended.