I always love picking up a new Randy Singer novel, and I wasn't disappointed when I finished THE JUDGE WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a novella that includes many of the quirky characters from his earlier books such as SELF-INCRIMINATION and DYING DECLARATION.
Singer, a Christy Award winner and trial lawyer (think John Grisham), excels in his multi-dimensional characters and even-handed portrayal of the difficult dilemmas faced by Christians. In this novella, he specifically addresses what constitutes the separation of church and state during perhaps the most controversial season of all --- Christmas.
In the small town of Possum, Virginia (yes, Possum, you heard it right!), the Freewill Baptist Church's living nativity on the town square incites the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to serve papers ordering the town to close it down. Rather than complying, the mayor tries "Operation Xmas Spirit," loading up the square with some displays of Santa Claus, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman as a counterbalance to the nativity. It isn't enough, and the wheels of legal action begin to crazily spin.
As the courtroom drama heats up, readers of the earlier novels will rejoice to see that one of Singer's most fully dimensional and intriguing characters, Judge Cynthia Baker-Kline (nicknamed "Ichabod"), is back, combining a "hair-trigger temper with a razor-sharp tongue that could slice up even seasoned litigators." Central to the story is the return of conservative fundamentalist Christians Thomas and Theresa Hammond (from DYING DECLARATION), who play Mary and Joseph in the living nativity scene.
As in all his novels, Singer's bad guys are not all bad, and his Christian guys are not all nice. His character portrayals are something other inspirational novelists could learn a good deal from in making their characters believable, real and engaging. For such a short story, there are a lot of characters and points of view to keep track of. Singer keeps the main plot and subplots moving smoothly. Some readers may find that law student Jasmine "Jazz" Woodfaulk's personal story (involving basketball and her legal career), while interesting, is less compelling than the Christmas conundrums she's trying to mediate in the courtroom.
You'd almost take it as a given that in a Christian novella in which the ACLU faces off against the Baptists (Singer is one himself) that there would be a clear winner implied. But Singer doesn't go for easy clichés, which has always been part of his appeal. Readers familiar with the Christian world of televangelism will immediately recognize the machinations of the Freddie Hester Evangelistic Association, which attempts to turn the controversy into a fund-raising appeal for its organization and create a media circus, using Theresa Hammond as a pawn. Judge Baker-Kline, who would at first glance seem to be anti-Christian, turns out to have some complex motivations.
The definition of the separation of church and state is rife with minefields, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. Singer does a wonderful job leaving clues along the way without giving away the whole plot twist until the closing pages, and there's a terrific turn in the story that will catch readers off-guard. Enough said.
You'll be able to enjoy THE JUDGE WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS even if you skipped Singer's earlier books. But you'll have a better understanding of some of the characters if you (at the very least) read DYING DECLARATION first. I'm planning on sharing THE JUDGE WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS with my friends and family. A seasonal winner --- don't miss it!
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 18, 2005