Hmmm. How to put this.
I loved the first book in this series. Loved it. The Butterfly Garden was fresh and snappy and unputdownable. Unfortunately, such a stellar first book in a series can be hard to follow up, which is absolutely the case here.
I vaguely remember the second book, which I admittedly read several years ago. I remember almost nothing about the third book, which I presumably read somewhat more recently. And this book, which I just finished, is already slipping away. I'm weirdly disappointed in myself, because I wanted to love this series. I wanted all the subsequent books to be as good as the first. But they're just not.
I remember being upset with the second book because it was so much like the first. The strong female character card was played hot and heavy, to the point where the female characters became almost indistinguishable. They all thought the same, talked the same, and acted the same. It felt both superfluous and painstakingly deliberate. I found it very irritating.
In the third book... hmmm. I really don't remember much. I remember it followed Mercedes, who was a thoroughly underused character throughout the entire series. I also remember that Mercedes didn't really do much investigating. I think she was taken off the case pretty early on. As for the case itself, absolutely nothing about it stuck with me. Take from that what you will.
This fourth and final book seemed to be the culmination of everything that went wrong with the series after The Butterfly Garden. There is an excess of female characters, all of whom are brash and assertive, yet also unbelievably immature. There is a very noticeable effort to make the cast diverse, which unfortunately comes across as heavy-handed instead of genuine. The narrator, Sterling, doesn't really work the case. The kidnapping plot itself is perhaps a quarter of the book's contents, and it's not much of a driving force behind the narrative. Instead the reader's time is spent on on what everyone's eating or drinking, or who's hanging out with who, or who's napping where, or generally how snuggly everyone is with each other. It's the kind of stuff that can be used to season a story, but here it's run rampant like an invasive weed, and effectively swallowed the whole book.
Regarding the characters, nothing really changed. Nobody really grew, or underwent a journey. There were some subplots regarding an old wedding dress, and a new house, and Sterling and Eddison's inability to commit to each other, but these ideas were underdeveloped and existed completely independent of the kidnapping investigation. It only contributed to the book's lack of cohesiveness, and was particularly disappointing since Eddison was my favourite character from the start.
Priya, Inara, and Victoria-Bliss showed up again, for no real reason. I guess they contributed to the whole our-team-is-a-family idea, which quite frankly is probably the series's biggest downfall. The execution of the idea is overdone, and more and more overused from book to book.
I also found there were a lot of elements to the story that went nowhere, like Sterling and tea, or Sterling's burn, or Sterling's supposed skill of communicating with families of the suspects. Maybe I was just paying too much attention, but to me it was misuse of the gun concept, which basically says that if you introduce a gun into a scene, you'd better use it. We also heard about the paperwork Sterling needs to fly armed, and heard a lot about go bags, and other tidbits that somehow manage to feel out of place in a story about FBI agents, perhaps because said FBI agents spend most of their time not working the case.
And what was with Sterling being hailed as the one who solved the case? She made a few insane leaps of logic that miraculously turned out to be correct, and everyone treats her like she was the driving force behind the resolution. That was a little ridiculous to me, especially since it all seemed to happen so effortlessly.
Ultimately, I think this book, and this series, is an instance of mismatched expectations. If you come into it looking for kickass women, witty banter, camaraderie, and somewhat outlandish characters, you'll probably be satisfied. If you come looking for a police procedural, however, or a mystery, or anything resembling actual law enforcement working a case, you'll be left shaking your head in incredulity.
One star for finishing, one star because the first book was just so good.