Sunday, April 11, 2010

Holiday spirit summons ghosts of past deeds

China Bayles is a gutsy woman. She walked away from a lucrative, high-profile career as a big ticket criminal defense lawyer in Houston, traded her high heels for sensible shoes, and used the contents of her 401K to buy an old stable in the heart of the little Texas Hill Country town of Pecan Springs. She opened an herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, on one side of the dwelling and rented the other side to Ruby Wilcox, a new age maven who China describes as “a hoot, that’s all anybody can say—and we certainly say it often enough.” Ruby’s shop, the Crystal Cave, offers books on astrology, tools for divination, and classes on getting in touch with your inner self.

China and Ruby are more than just business neighbors. They are best friends and co-owners of a catering company and they have an affinity for insinuating themselves into the middle of murder investigations, much to the chagrin of China’s new husband, Mike McQuaid, a private investigator and faculty member in the Criminal Justice Department at Central Texas State University. McQuaid has custody of his teenage son, Brian, and the couple is also raising China’s eleven year old niece, Caitlin.

Holly Blues, Susan Wittig Albert’s 18th China Bayles mystery, is set in Pecan Springs during the Christmas holidays. Sally Strahorn, McQuaid’s mentally ill ex-wife and Brian’s biological mother, appears out of the blue claiming to be penniless and homeless. Sally has been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and her alter ego, Juanita, is a trouble maker.

Despite the fact that Sally has caused serious problems for the McQuaids in the past, in a burst of holiday generosity China impulsively encourages her to spend time with Brian and invites her stay with the family over the Christmas holidays. China soon realizes that her beneficence is sorely misplaced when Sally begins receiving menacing telephone calls from a stalker who is tied to the murders of her parents nearly a decade ago. When Sally’s sister, Leslie, is found dead in her home town of Lake City, Texas, Sally is named a person of interest.

Holly Blues, is a fast-paced whodunit packed with murder and mayhem, spiked with humor, and laced with uncommon sensibility. Albert’s characters are often quirky, but they are believable, warts and all. Her prose is tight and flows easily with details that give her characters depth and authenticity. For instance, the description of the Pecan Springs Chief of Police, dubbed “Smart Cookie’ by the author, is classic Albert:

“Sheila was uniformed in her usual natty blue and gray jacket, shirt, pants, and cap, her blonde hair scooped into a bun at the back of her head. Even so, and with a radio on one hip and a holstered weapon on the other, she’s beautiful. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair that there’s so much firepower—intelligence, competence, confidence, and damned good looks—loaded into one woman. But while Smart Cookie might look like Miss Dallas costumed for the cover of Law Enforcement Magazine, I wouldn’t mess with her, if I were you. She can outshoot any of her officers, any day. And she don’t take no sass, as the locals say.”

While Holly Blues is part of a series of herbal mysteries, it can stand alone. The author inconspicuously weaves background information about her recurring characters into the first chapters of each book.

Albert earned her PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, and later became the first woman dean of Newcomb College in New Orleans. After a few years she returned to Texas as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Texas State University in San Marcos. She did not feel fulfilled as a college administrator and professor and one day walked out and never looked back.

Says Albert in her memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, “And on that day I walked out of the university, I felt astonishingly, astoundingly free—as free as those wild birds—and I could sing my own glorious hurrah. It was only a step, but it was the first, and it was necessary.”

In addition to the China Bayles mysteries, Albert is the author of  The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, a mystery series featuring author Beatrix Potter. Albert and her husband, Bill, collaborated on the The Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries from 1994 – 2006. Albert is currently working on a new mystery series, The Darling Dahlias, the first of which is due out in July. She has also authored several non-fiction books.

Like I said, Susan Wittig Albert is a gutsy woman.

You can read the first chapter of Holly Blues at

China Bayles fans can subscribe to Albert’s weekly newsletter, “All About Thyme” at

This review was originally published in the San Antonio Express News on April 11, 2010 and in the Boerne Star on April 15, 2010.

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