|Susan Wittig Albert: Mistletoe Man|
Prime Crime (Hardcover), ISBN 0425176738
Retail businesses rarely run smoothly, and friendships can abruptly take off on a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows fueled by communication glitches. Such things complicate the life of China Bayles -- newlywed, business partner, best friend of a New Age feminist, and member of a small community where residents know each other's genealogy, family secrets and daily goings on.
But the town gets a surprise when a native son dies. The grapevine reverberates with speculation of an accident, or maybe murder. China decides to find out. You can bet the Fletcher sisters and their weird Aunt Velma know more than they're telling. (With a name like Fletcher, you know murder figures in somehow!)
Albert's popular herbal series features snippets of information about the herb of choice at the beginning of each chapter. These mistletoe tidbits intrude as the suspense heats up and the clues and action start percolating. The intrusion caused this reader consternation over what to read first. But the frustration underlines Albert's ability to write a compelling story with action and characters that intrigue and confound.
Sad to say, Albert's ninth book marks my first acquaintance with the series. But I like the premise. I enjoy the herbs, the young (but not too young) woman with an independent streak, her quirky sidekick and eccentric neighbors. The small-town-sleuth-solves-crimes plot benefits from a touch of New Age ambience and a dab of romance. Although, for my taste, Mistletoe Man needs a smidgen more romance and more McQuaid (China's new husband).
Ironically, the author thickly spreads detailed forensic information to demonstrate her expertise. Yet, the sheriff, Blackie, ineptly declares the death an accident without taking steps to rule out homicide, and belatedly decides to check out the victim's home and property. Anyone who watches television's Walker, Texas Ranger or Law and Order could conduct a better investigation. But, the book's totally unexpected and memorable ending helps readers forget Blackie and his bumbling.
Despite the sheriff, I plan to read more of Albert's China Bayles herbal series -- for medicinal reasons, of course.
If this is the first China Bayles mystery you have read you must go back to the beginning. As in most continuing sleuth stories, the characters build on each novel with increasing personality traits you either love or hate. China is one you enjoy getting to know better in each novel. I highly recommend reading Mistletoe Man with its small town mystery and mayhem, but I strongly encourage you to go back and find China's beginnings in Thyme of Death. It is fun to watch the relationship between she and McQuiad develop along with that of the other main characters.
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