A Christian Lost and Found Game

Author: Robert Whitlow

Buddy Smith is haunted by his past, by all that he has lost. This grief, however, has given him a destiny; it has defined him as a person. When he lost his girlfriend and their new baby in high school, when she ran away with their child without a word, Buddy became obsessed with his duty, with finding his daughter. All these years later, as a powerful small-town lawyer, he has remained fixated on the goal, taking cases to help others right wrongs and find loved ones. Through him, many miracles have been worked. Families have been reunited, runaways have been saved, and the world has become a better place. Yet, Buddy remains alone, still searching for any sign of his long-ago girlfriend and the child he barely got to see.

Gracie Blaylock has known Buddy her entire life. She even had a crush on him in high school, but he chose another girl, and soon there was a scandal and a baby. Gracie, however, is aware of Buddy’s philanthropic nature, and when a girl on the softball team she coaches goes missing, she sends the terrified parents to Buddy. As he begins to help, a newcomer to the town, the gracious and gorgeous Mayleah, insinuates herself. Together, Buddy, Gracie, and Mayleah investigate further. Where is Reagan, the missing girl? Is she safe? Can she be brought back before the worst happens?

As the three characters weave their way together, they start to share their lives, their stories, their heartaches. Buddy unearths an old, painful secret that may finally lead him to his daughter. Mayleah examines her failed marriage more closely. And Gracie shares her faith and prayer life, while going out on a limb to accept the possibilities of love.

I came to Trial and Error through my Christian book club on GoodReads. Honestly, I don’t often read the picks, because most of them tend towards romance, which is my least favorite genre. But this one had the makings of a legal thriller, and while there was still that romance (and love triangle angle), the story was ostensibly about more than finding a mate.

In all honesty, the phrase “legal thriller” or “court room drama” doesn’t belong here. Despite the name, there is no trial (although there are plenty of errors), and while Reagan’s situation quickly escalates into mature themes (drugs, prostitution, etc.) the story is mostly a sleeper, focused more on the power of prayer and a surprising amount of prayer advice and how-tos for a fictional novel. It’s sweet . . . but not exactly what readers signed up for and certainly not thrilleresque.

There are really three stories going on at once: Buddy searching for his daughter and unraveling the mystery of her mother’s years of careful hiding, the team trying to find Reagan, and a maybe romance between Buddy and either Mayleah or Gracie. We all know how it will go, and honestly, the final romance isn’t that satisfying. It felt more like Buddy giving in to what everyone else wanted than having genuine romantic love for the too-good-to-be-true Gracie. I suppose it was what we wanted, the final paring we were rooting for, but it certainly didn’t feel organic.

Image by gioia from Pixabay

A lot of the story focuses on Gracie’s prayer life, and it’s not really praying like you are thinking. Gracie has lists, prayers that she prays yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily based on the need of the person and the expedience of God’s answer. Prayers that don’t seem to get answers (such as the one for Buddy to find his daughter) get put in the pray-once-a-year bucket. But Gracie keeps stats on what is answered, how, and when. It’s an entire system. Not necessarily a bad one, but the level of organization fits in with Gracie’s too-perfect-to-be-a-real-human character. The flawed Buddy and Mayleah are certainly much more human and therefore, more relatable.

Buddy’s conversion falls under the saccharine spell of Gracie’s perfection. It’s too easy, too unearned, and none of Buddy’s real questions get answered. He just likes the way Gracie prays. It’s too convenient for the plot, and not messy enough to capture the gritty struggle of real life. This isn’t a Book of Job moment, but a bunch of near-perfect people who always act kindly and patiently becoming even more perfect. Dare I say, it’s a bit dull. If we are to get more encouragement in our faith, we need to see real faith, not a Hallmark channel perception of it in the quaint little town atmosphere where everyone is good intentioned, good willed, and never has a bad day or a fit of pique.

In the end, the story just hands us answers. We get Reagan back (of course), rescued at the ninth hour, and then we get an unlikely tie-in with Buddy’s long going search, where everyone again acts perfectly and no one has a misunderstanding, gets mad, or is upset. It’s just all peaches and cream and our promised thriller drama never materializes. For Christian fiction, I suppose it’s ok, which is an admission that frankly, the genre is incredibly weak and thinks that saccharine perfection somehow grows faith instead of a head on reality check and focus on real people in bad situations. I didn’t hate Trial and Error, but I didn’t love it either and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary here to make me come back or explore the genre further. Christian fiction still has a very long way to go, and frankly it’s a genre that also needs to remember that in fiction you must tell a good, interesting story instead of using non-fiction preachiness to get a point across.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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