Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Some of her recent titles include Widow's Tears, Cat's Claw, The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose, and The Tale of Castle Cottage. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige, which includes such titles as Death at Glamis Castle and Death at Whitechapel.
China Bayles, former rat-race lawyer, escapes to small-town Texas to operate an herb shop and enjoy the simple life. Murder interrupts her simple life, however, when a good friend and local protest organizer dies suddenly. Revelatory letters, a crazy-eyed dollmaker, a nationally known TV personality, her ex-cop lover, and a shifty developer complicate matters as China begins her amateurish investigation. Like her pursuit of the murderer, this provides pleasant escape from routine. The first of a series.
In this promising though conventional debut mystery, Albert (Work of Her Oum) ably invents a central Texas town called Pecan Springs. While the plotting is somewhat mundane, the book's appealing late-summer setting and descriptions of home cooking are nicely evocative. Narrator China Bayels, 42, a former fast-track Houston attorney who now owns a slowlane Pecan Springs herb emporium, erdoys her laid-back lifestyle until the untimely death of her friend Jo Gilbert. Jo, who was battling cancer, is found after she downed a bottle of sleeping pills with vodka, but some in the closeknit community insist that suicide wasn't Jo's style. China and her brassy, New-Agey pal Ruby snoop around and learn that Jo once had an affair with another woman, a prominent childrens'-TV personality. Did the famous lover fear that gossip might ruin her career? Suspicion in Jo's death-and two subsequent slayings-shifts among members of the insular community before the plausible yet slightly disappointing finale. Motives are determined and a guilty party pegged, but there's a sense that all is not resolved; the narrative loses sight of China's romance with an excop and puts the herb business on the back burner. Presumably these aspects of China's life will be detailed as the projected series progresses, but their obvious neglect here leaves readers with mixed feelings about this story's conclusion. (Nov.)