"This pitch-perfect novel reimagines the life of Rose Wilder Lane...a nuanced, moving and resonant novel about fraught mother-daughter relationships, family obligation and the ways we both inherit and reject the values of our parents. The book also offers insightful, timely commentary on what it means to be a career writer. With all of the charm of the Little House series--and the benefit of a sophisticated, adult worldview--Albert's novel is an absolute pleasure."– Kirkus Reviews
New York Times bestselling author Albert (The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush, 2015, etc.) returns to historical fiction in this intimate exploration of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok.
Shortly after Eleanor’s death, Lorena (known as “Hick” to her friends) decides to write a memoir of their time together. She agrees to publish it on the condition that it and accompanying personal correspondence will remain sealed until after Hick dies. “I met Mrs. Roosevelt in 1928, the year that Herbert Hoover beat the pants off Al Smith,” she begins, and her narrative voice remains lively as she reminisces about the former first lady and her own remarkable life as one of the first female news reporters in the United States. Hick first zeroes in on Eleanor during the New York gubernatorial race because she’s “doing something political wives just didn’t do. She was campaigning for the ticket.” Eleanor is an intriguing anomaly: a tireless woman who splits her time between campaigning, teaching, writing, and mothering. The two women connect during their first interview, and when Franklin begins his first presidential run, Hick covers Eleanor full-time. The two women become close, and their relationship soon turns romantic. They exchange countless letters of longing and dream of a quieter life in which they can be simply ordinary. But many obstacles stand in their way, not least of which is Eleanor’s transformation into a public personage. Over time, their romance evolves into a deep, lifelong friendship. Albert captures Hick’s spirit with energetic prose, painting a colorful picture of her fascinating life together with and apart from Eleanor. Although this memoir is fictional, the author draws upon thousands of personal letters, first-person accounts by others, and further research to present a compelling possible narrative of the relationship between Eleanor and Hick. Albert’s illuminating afterword adds important context to her narrative choices, and a comprehensive bibliography will encourage additional research.
This warm, extensively researched novel will entrance readers and inspire them to look further into the lives of two extraordinary women.
An herbal expert and a game warden pool their knowledge to solve a crime.
China Bayles and her family head for remote Uvalde County, Texas, where her mother, Leatha, lives on a ranch with her second husband, Sam, who’s currently in the hospital with heart problems. China, who owns the Thyme and Seasons Herb Shop, is hauling plants for a friend’s garden, and she's looking forward to seeing her friend Mackenzie Chambers, a local game warden. Leatha and Sam plan to open a guesthouse for birders, but with Sam so ill, Leatha’s happy to get some help from Sue Ellen Krause, a perky cowgirl eager to escape her abusive husband, who works at Three Gates Game Ranch, one of the many places in Texas where people can hunt tame animals bred for their trophy racks. There’s big money in canned hunting, and Sue Ellen knows that her husband and two of his friends are involved in something illegal. Since China’s still a lawyer, Sue Ellen asks her for advice but never tells her the whole story. In the meantime, Mack meets a crusty local veterinarian who says he’s seen tattooed fawns on a ranch where they’re not supposed to be. But he’s equally stingy with details. All trophy hunt ranches must have escape-proof fences and tattoo all their animals, many of them exotic varieties that could ruin the genetics of the local animal population. When the old veterinarian is shot and killed, China and Mack compare what they know and find a disturbing solution.
Not the best of China’s many cases (Cat’s Claw, 2012, etc.) but a compelling look at the ethics of canned hunting.
This pitch-perfect novel reimagines the life of Rose Wilder Lane, co-author of Little House on the Prairie.
Albert (Widow’s Tears, 2013, etc.) has discovered an endlessly fascinating protagonist. Lane, the libertarian and rumored lesbian, was an established, award-winning writer in her own right, but she may be best remembered today as the uncredited co-author of the Little House books written by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Albert’s well-researched novel draws from the letters and journal entries of both women to offer a fictionalized account of the years spanning 1928-1939. The Great Depression threatens not only Rose’s livelihood as a writer, but also the free-wheeling, itinerant lifestyle she so values. When she and her companion, Helen Boylston, leave their home in Albania and return to the Wilder farmstead in Missouri, the move is meant to be temporary—Mansfield, Mo., has little to offer in the way of culture, after all, and Rose frequently clashes with her headstrong and old-fashioned mother. In the aftershock of the stock market crash, however, both women lose their savings, and Rose loses the financial stability she had enjoyed as a freelance writer before the crash. When a publisher shows interest in printing the stories of Laura’s difficult frontier childhood (but Laura’s untrained writing fails to impress), the mother and daughter enter into an unlikely, often contentious collaboration to produce the now-beloved Little House books. From this strange, very specific historical relationship, Albert has written a nuanced, moving and resonant novel about fraught mother-daughter relationships, family obligation, and the ways we both inherit and reject the values of our parents. The book also offers insightful, timely commentary on what it means to be a career writer.
With all of the charm of the Little House series—and the benefit of a sophisticated, adult worldview—Albert’s novel is an absolute pleasure.
Even the Great Depression can’t keep the Darling Dahlias down for long.
In addition to their efforts to beautify the town and plant a large vegetable garden to help feed their less fortunate neighbors in Darling, the members of Alabama’s best-loved garden club have developed quite a reputation as sleuths (The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose, 2012, etc.). The star of the 1932 Watermelon Festival, which the Dahlias are running, is famous aviatrix Lily Dare, aka The Texas Star. Before Lily even gets to town, trouble looms. Local newshound Charlie Dickens, an old friend of Miss Dare, tells a few of the Dahlias that her plane has been sabotaged, though she still hopes to arrive in Darling on time. The beautiful Miss Dare has been careless with other ladies’ husbands, one of whom may be wealthy Roger Kilgore. Roger’s wife, Mildred, a Dahlia member, admits to club president Liz Lacy that she has received unsigned letters accusing Roger of romancing Lily Dare, who’ll be staying in her house during the festival. Liz, asked by Charlie to keep an eye on Lily, enlists Dahlia treasurer Verna Tidwell to stay with her in the adjoining room, where they get an earful when Mildred’s jealous confrontation with her guest results in a pair of black eyes. In addition to riding herd on this circus, the Dahlias try to ferret out the background of the fabulous new cook who rescued diner owner Myra May Mosswell from disaster when Myra’s regular cook left them in the lurch. The ladies have their hands full making the festival a success and keeping their star attraction alive.
Another Mystery Lite stuffed with Southern charm and authentic Depression-era recipes.
A third unruffled retro whodunit for the ladies of the Darling Dahlias garden club.
Despite their ability to grow some of their food and barter for needed items, life isn’t easy for the citizens of Darling, Ala., during the Great Depression. But it’s harder for some folks than others. The Dahlias are busy getting ready for the Confederate Day Celebration by preparing to plant a batch of Confederate roses, which are really hibiscus, at the local cemetery when their attention is called to the plight of Verna Tidwell, who’s accused of stealing $15,000 from the town coffers. Darling president Liz Lacy, who works for a lawyer, enlists the help of a few close friends to prove Verna’s innocence. In the meantime the reticent Miss Rogers, town librarian and Dahlia member, has discovered a mystery of her own. Miss Rogers was left in an orphanage as a young child, her only possession a pillow that belonged to her grandmother, Rose. Now that a pesky tomcat has ripped the knitted cover, Miss Rogers finds that the pillow has been embroidered with a series of unusual symbols. The editor of the local newspaper takes on the task of researching the pillow and comes up with a remarkable discovery.
As usual, Albert (The Darling Dahlias and the Naked Ladies, 2011, etc.) plumps up her wisp of a mystery with plenty of charm and period detail.
A police chief and an amateur sleuth combine their talents to solve a series of crimes.
At first, computer expert Larry Kirk’s shooting appears to be suicide. It turns out, however, that he had already been involved in a crime when his shop was broken into. Police Chief Sheila Dawson, who’s handling the case, is fighting the good old boy network in Pecan Springs, Texas, but her friend, defense attorney–turned-herbalist China Bayles, doesn’t call her “smart cookie” for nothing. There’s little mystery about who broke into the computer store: It was local big shot George Timms. Though he was supposed to surrender to police, he vanished instead, making him suspect number one when evidence proves Kirk was murdered. China’s partner in several enterprises lives on the same street as Kirk, and her visiting sister found the body. On a hunch, China visits Timms’ cabin. There she finds evidence of wild parties, child porn and more murder when she stumbles over Timms’ body, who was killed by a mountain lion. Sheila and her staff hunt down clues while China sifts through local gossip the police chief never hears. Once they’ve dug up motives for any number of people, they have to figure out which of them is the guilty party.
Sheila walks off with top honors in China’s latest (Mourning Gloria, 2011, etc.). As usual, the solid mystery is supplemented with herbal wisdom and local Texas recipes.
Fresh from their maiden voyage (The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree, 2010, etc.), members of the Darling Dahlia Garden Club solve a second crime.
In the early years of the Depression, life in the small town of Darling, Ala., is a struggle even for gardeners who raise their own food. So Dahlia stalwarts Liz Lacy, Verna Tidwell and Bessie Bloodworth are grateful for the diversion provided by two new ladies who’ve moved into the home of the reclusive Miss Hamer. One is Miss Hamer’s niece Nona Jean Jamison, whom Verna recognizes as Lorelei LaMotte, the naughty half of the Ziegfeld Follies Naughty and Nice Sisters. Liz has her own problems when she learns that her overbearing mother has lost her house in the stock market crash and is planning on moving in with Liz. The ladies are sure there’s something up when Nona Jean goes to the beauty parlor and has her flowing platinum locks bobbed and died brown. A little judicious snooping reveals Nona’s connection with the notorious Al Capone. When one of Capone’s henchmen arrives in town looking for Nona and her friend, who’s remained sequestered in her room, the Dahlias know they’re in for trouble. These flowers of Southern womanhood are a lot tougher than they appear, however, and they have a plan to rid Darling of the hit man.
Not the most difficult mystery to solve, but still literate and well-researched, with recipes and cleaning tips appended.
A disturbing experience involves Texas ex-lawyer, herbalist, business owner and amateur sleuth China Bayles in yet another murder case.
On her way home from a friend’s party, China Bayles notices a trailer on fire. She calls 911, then races to check for occupants. But the door is locked, and although she hears cries for help, the trailer explodes before she can do anything. The trailer fire was no accident, and the unidentified female victim had been bound and shot before the fire. Jessica Nelson, a graduate student at the local college who’s doing a summer internship at the Pecan Springs Enterprise, is eager to pursue a hot story. In addition, her memory of the fire that killed her parents and her twin sister makes this assignment especially urgent for her. When Jessica can’t be found after leaving an interrupted message on China’s answering machine, China takes her disappearance seriously, but her friends in the police force are not so concerned. With her private detective husband away on a case, China takes time away from her store to follow in Jessica’s footsteps as she looks for clues to her whereabouts. It soon becomes apparent that the dead woman may have had a drug connection. Dissatisfied, China digs up even more dirt in hopes of finding the answer.
China (Holly Blues, 2010, etc.) continues to provide good value, with solid mysteries, fascinating herbal lore and appended recipes.
Who better to investigate a 1930 murder than members of the local garden club?
Welcome to Darling, Ala., a sleepy town just starting to feel the effects of the Great Depression. Though a few of them are working ladies, the dozen members of the Darling Dahlias mostly represent the town’s upper class at a time when class still matters. When flashy young Bunny Scott is killed in a car wreck that turns out to be murder, club officers Lizzy Lacy, Ophelia Snow and Verna Tidwell put aside their latest project—restoring the extensive grounds of a little house the club has inherited—and use what they’ve picked up from detective novels and their ability to tap into town gossip to turn sleuths. The murder is not Darling’s only little disturbance. The bank is on the verge of collapse, and the owner blames a teller, a Dahlia member the club ladies are sure is innocent. A prison break has the town on edge, and the Cartwright ghost has been seen digging under one of the magnificent cucumber trees that adorn the clubhouse grounds. Although husbands, boyfriends and law-enforcement officials all tell them not to worry their pretty little heads, the Dahlias go to great lengths to solve the mysteries plaguing their beloved town.
The creator of herbalist China Bayles (Holly Blues, 2010, etc.) begins a new historical series equally full of intriguing characters, garden lore and recipes that adds nostalgia for the good old days, even if they weren’t so good after all.
Christmas with herbalist China Bayles and a visitor who spells trouble.
Although traffic has been slow at her shops, China and her family—her husband Mike McQuaid, private eye and part-time college professor, his son Brian, and China’s niece Caitlin—are making do. When Mike’s former wife, Brian’s mom Sally Strahorn, turns up begging for a place to stay, China, a tough former trial lawyer, feels sorry for Sally, who has multiple-personality disorder and claims to be broke. Things change when China starts getting phone calls from a polite but somehow menacing stranger who wants to see Sally and claims to have the car Sally says was repossessed. Though a case takes Mike to Omaha and leaves China on her own, she can always count on her business partner Ruby and her friends, who include the chief of police and the county sheriff. Sally vanishes just before the police chief comes looking for her as a person of interest in her sister’s murder. She pops up just long enough to phone China and beg her to get Mike to go to her hometown in Kansas, where the librarian claims to know who murdered Sally’s parents and perhaps lit the fuse to all her current problems. For the sake of Brian, China and Mike struggle to find the truth.
Albert’s Texas Hill Country mysteries (Wormwood, 2009, etc.) are always a good value for both the mystery and the horticultural insights.
A fresh fatality forces China Bayles, herbalist, ex-lawyer and amateur sleuth, to confront the mystery of her emotionally distant father’s death.
China has never enjoyed an easy relationship with her recently revealed illegitimate half brother Miles, who hired China’s husband McQuaid to investigate their father’s death in a fiery car crash. When Miles himself is killed in a hit-and-run incident, China is named executor of his estate. She discovers that Miles, who has been keeping secrets from McQuaid, already knew a great deal more than he revealed about their father’s death and several other suspicious deaths, all related to their father’s legal work for a politically connected, none-too-ethical engineering firm that’s grown prosperous on lucrative government contracts for half a century. For years Miles’s mother Laura had kept his father’s wrecked car hidden away in her cousin Ellie’s Texas Hill Country barn. Once McQuaid sees the wreck, he quickly realizes that the fatal crash was no accident. When the barn is torched and Ellie is shot, China and McQuaid team up to reveal the killer.
The conclusion to the trilogy exploring China’s relationship with her father (Spanish Dagger, 2007, etc.) does a fine job of bringing together all the bits and pieces, even for those who have not read the first two installments.
An herbalist and a Rottweiler solve a series of crimes.
While picking yucca leaves for a papermaking workshop, China Bayles, herbalist, businesswoman and lawyer, discovers the body of Colin Fowler, local business owner, possible undercover cop and former love of China’s best friend, Ruby Wilcox. Ruby, who’s off in Fredericksburg moving her demented mother to assisted living, begs China to look into the death and take care of Colin’s Rottweiler. Everywhere China goes, she crosses the path of a big blond guy whose looks mark him as a cop. Her pal, the police chief, warns China off, but all the clues seem to come her way. With her ex-cop p.i. husband out of town working on a cold case for her half-brother, involving the death of her father, China feels free to take chances with the blond guy, who may be a member of a regional Drug Task Force, a group with a bad reputation when it comes to corruption. He’s hunting for drugs, and he claims Colin was dealing. Colin had recently received calls from Lucita, bookkeeper at nearby Sonoma Nursery, presumably about some potted plants in Colin’s yard. But when Lucita is the next victim and Rambo the Rottweiler sniffs out cocaine in the pots, China realizes she may be in big trouble.
Albert’s 16th (after Bleeding Hearts, 2006, etc.) complements the obligatory herbal lore and recipes with one of her best mysteries to date.
In Pecan Springs, Tex., football is king and Coach Tim Duffy is prince—but he may also be a sexual predator.
Fully occupied with her herb shop, tea room and catering business, China Bayles, Esq. (Dead Man’s Bones, 2005, etc.), is far from eager to investigate when the high-school principal calls her. An anonymous caller has accused Coach Duffy of sexual relationships with underage girls dating back to his days at Friendship High. So China goes to Friendship to talk to Margarita Lopez, whose daughter Angela was involved with the coach. The stakes escalate when Margarita reveals that after Angela departed for college in Pecan Springs, she was found dead, a supposed suicide. When the coach is murdered, China’s stepson and his girlfriend, marked as Duffy’s next victim, snap a picture of Margarita doing the deed. Should it all be hushed up when Margarita kills herself? Duffy’s wife is the scion of an old Pecan Springs family whose roots in local affairs run deep. But when China’s investigation reveals that Angela was murdered, the truth must be disclosed. Meantime, China’s learned that she has a half-brother, son of their father’s secretary, himself a lawyer in possession of letters indicating that their father may have been murdered. In addition, there’s a hint that her best friend Ruby’s boyfriend is not who he seems to be.
China’s followers will delight in the complicated relationships, recipes and historical flower information.
Murder interrupts Beatrix Potter’s latest visit to her beloved Hill Top Farm in England’s Lake District.
It’s 1906. When the noted children’s author goes to neighboring Holly How Farm to see her new Herdwicks, she discovers the body of the shepherd, Ben Hornsby. Though it first appears he fell over a cliff, the doctor discovers he was hit in the back with an undetermined weapon. Beneath the village of Sawrey’s placid surface lurks unpleasantness. Lady Longford’s candidate for the head teacher’s position is opposed by the villagers, who prefer to promote the current lower-school teacher; the sly companion Miss Martine is cruel to Caroline, daughter of her Ladyship’s castoff son; and one of the local badger setts has been raided and its occupants taken for an illegal badger-baiting. Beatrix is embroiled in these affairs through her meeting with Isaac Chance, who’s suspected of burning down Hornsby’s barn, and her visit to Caroline, to whom she offers a guinea pig as a short-term companion. She foils several nefarious schemes with the help of Justice of the Peace Miles Woodcock, solicitor William Heelis, and a large group of local animals tame and wild.
Albert (Dead Man’s Bones, p. 259, etc.) provides enchantment for fans of Beatrix Potter and Sneaky Pie Brown, and anyone else who likes mysteries that are easy to solve.
The latest interruption in the lives of China Bayles, Esq., her best bud Ruby Wilcox, her husband, college teacher/private eye Mike McQuaid, and his son Brian, 14, is . . . Brian’s discovery of skeletal remains at an archaeological site.
More complications await the friends of China’s herb shop, tearoom and catering business. Ruby, the queen of bad relationships, falls for newcomer Colin Fowler. China’s friends Sheriff Blackie Blackwell and Chief of Police fiancée Sheila Dawson, aka “Smart Cookie,” break up. And forensic specialist Alana Montoya starts hitting the bottle. The gravest consequences attend the grand opening of the new Merrill Obermann Community Theater, financed by the Misses Obermann. Jane, who’s written the opening play in her father’s honor, is an autocrat tolerated for the sake of her charitable donations. Her sister Florence lives quietly in Jane’s shadow. On the night of the grand opening, Jane kills local carpenter Hank Dixon, who’d allegedly broken into her house and threatened the sisters with a knife. When Florence dies, apparently poisoned, China has to pull together the threads that connect the shooting, the poisoning and that skeleton.
Devotees of China’s adventures (Indigo Dying, 2003, etc.) will enjoy more quality time with the denizens of Pecan Springs. Even newcomers who don’t get into the Texas Hill Country spirit will pick up some recipes and a lot of herbal lore.
Ever-so-slight tales, six reworked from Country Living Gardener magazine’s Web site, featuring pudgy middle-aged sleuth China Bayles, Texas herb-store proprietor, and her chums.
Four of the ten stories here focus on mysterious disappearances: of a Siamese cat (“The Khat Who Became a Hero”), of a rare herb-book (“The Rosemary Caper”), of an original will (“The Pennyroyal Plot”), and of a children’s book store proprietor (“Bloom Where You’re Planted”). Another four feature genteel murders: a lemon-thyme gardener is dispatched in “An Unthymely Death,” an antique rosebush desecrater in “Death of a Rose Rustler,” the recipient of a tussie mussie nosegay in “A Violet Death,” and a brownie muncher in “A Deadly Chocolate Valentine.” A real-estate developer is foiled in “Ivy’s Wild, Wonderful Weeds,” and county-fair competitors reach a truce in “Mustard Madness.” The collection is semi-enlivened by 98(!) sidebars on everything from Dorothy L. Sayers’s ad campaign for mustard to how to make rose beads, brew herb tea, raise catnip, and bake Applesauce Mint Bread.
Minimal sleuthing, poorly tended plots, but the green-thumb crowd will probably be charmed by the gardening tidbits in those lushly planted sidebars.
Herbalist China Bayles (Bloodroot, 2001, etc.) has launched a series of workshops about dyeing textiles with natural ingredients with her old friend Allie Selby, who raises angora goats and grows dye-producing plants on a farm near a little town called Indigo. (No, really.) China and her sidekick Ruby Wilcox head up to Indigo and Allie’s farm for a Colors To Die For Workshop and the Indigo Arts and Crafts Festival, sponsored by the Historical Indigo Restoration Committee (HIRC), to which Allie and key Indigo business owners belong. As part of the festival, HIRC is also producing a historical play written by Allie’s live-in boyfriend, writer/drifter Derek Cooper. But the festivities suddenly darken when Casey Ford, Allie’s uncle, announces that he’s sold his mining rights to a company that plans to strip-mine Indigo, effectively burying the economic and cultural revival, not to mention the beautiful natural surroundings, including Allie’s farm, under a layer of brown. Members of HIRC see red, and former lawyer China is blue. When Casey is shot dead during a performance of Cooper’s play, Indigo lightens up, but law enforcement isn’t convinced that Casey walked into his own shotgun booby-trap by accident. Color Allie and her cohorts suspicious, so China, with the help of Ruby’s psychic gifts, investigates to find the real culprit.
China brews a restful—some might say soporific—cup of herbal tea for her fans, while Wittig earnestly shares her research into a rainbow of folklore, herbalist traditions, and strip-mining.
Lawyer-turned-herbalist China Bayles (Mistletoe Man, 2000, etc.) has long disowned the maternal side of her family history, distressingly connected as it is to an antebellum slave-owning plantation and her mother’s alcoholic weaknesses. But a frantic call from her mother Leatha forces her to leave her prosperous, happily married present and return to the past in the shape of Jordan’s Crossing, the ancestral home of the Coldwells, set in a lush and Faulknerian Mississippi. Leatha has been staying at Jordan’s Crossing to care for elderly Aunt Tullie, the woman who raised her, now suffering from a debilitating illness. But it’s legal, not medical, help that Leatha needs from China. For generations, the mixed-blood Beauchamps have served the Coldwells as trusted servants, accepting the racist ways of the Old South in never aspiring to land ownership. Now, however, handsome rake Wiley Beauchamp, current manager of Jordan’s Crossing, has presented Tullie and Leatha with an old property deed that appears to have granted his great-grandfather the best part of the plantation. Tullie reacts violently, and by the time China arrives, Wiley has disappeared. Soon his corpse is found on the property he craved. Now China must keep Tullie, ill and irascible, out of jail and Jordan’s Crossing in the hands of the Coldwells, all the time confronting other troubling legacies she and her mother may have no choice but to claim.
Albert stretches both herself and her well-adjusted, politically correct heroine to their limits by slotting China into the role of Hamlet, haunted by generations of melodramatic Ophelias demanding revenge.
As her marriage to Pecan Springs (Texas) Acting Police Chief Michael McQuaid looms, lawyer-turned-herbalist China Bayles wrestles with floral arrangements, musical selections, and her eighth murder case (Chile Death, 1998, etc.). Someone has put paid to Edgar Coleman’s nefarious real-estate schemes, and the big questions are (1) who wanted him dead badly enough to push to the head of a very long line of suspects, and (2) which of those suspects—ranging from the wife he was cheating on to the seven city councillors he was blackmailing—could not have been the “Jean” a neighbor heard Letty Coleman casting aspersions on before the widow’s own fatal tumble down her stone steps? (One of the city councillors is beautician Billie Jean Jones; another is bookseller Darla Jean McDaniels; even a little South Texas town like Pecan Springs presumably has room for still more.) Albert does a deft job of balancing China’s investigations, designed to rescue her bridegroom for his honeymoon, with dense small-town detail, but long before the final chapter, which describes the wedding after the mystery’s been safely wrapped up, there’s never any doubt that romance comes first in her heart, followed by her loving evocation of an entrepreneurial Shangri-la of endless independent shopkeepers, whether or not they’re named Jean. Though the murderer is easily spotted in advance, the motive will surprise you. If you really burn with suspense about the wedding, though, you’ll have to wait till that last chapter. (Author tour)
Holy rocambole! The nuns at St. Theresa's are fighting tooth and nail over the candidate for abbess and the fate of the abbey. The issues evenly divided between the Sisters of the Holy Heart, who are content to sit on the $7 million bequest they got from the Laney Foundation and tend their harvest of rocambole garlic, and the Sisters of St. Agatha, who have been moved to St. Theresa's from a Texas conference center and want to use all that Laney cash to turn the abbey into another hot spot. The race between garlic-loving Sister Gabriella and conference center manager Sister Olivia will be determined by a majority vote. But attorney-turned-herbalist China Bayles, visiting the abbey to retreat from the hectic world and look into some suspicious fires and accusatory anonymous letters while she's in retreat, wonders if the deaths of pioneer Laney legatee Mother Hilaria and ailing old Sister Perpetua aren't the work of somebody who's trying to gerrymander the election. A cryptic note in Mother Hilaria's diary reads, ``Sr. A, letter. Questioned Sr. R & Sr. O,'' clearly refers to Sister Olivia, but which is Sister R--Rose, Ruth, Rachel, Rosabel, Rosaline, Rowena, Ramona, Regina, or John Roberta? And can China unglue herself from her one-time squeeze Tom Rowan, now managing St. Theresa's trust fund, long enough to dope it out? The unsentimental look at convent life makes up for the near-invisibility of China (Rosemary Remembered, 1995, etc.). But not even Albert's way with a telling phrase can bring all those Sister R`s to life.
It isn't bad enough that lawyer-turned-herbalist China Bayles discovers the body of her accountant Rosemary Robbins; she also has to deal with her live-in Mike McQuaid's suspicion that Rosemary was shot by recently freed wife-killer Jake Jacoby--who just might have tried to get at McQuaid, the ex-cop who arrested him, by killing the woman he thought was Bayles. Overprotective McQuaid demands that Bayles stay close to home, but she's got the Texas Herb Marketers Guild conference to tend to, and, besides, the latest evidence--an easily recognizable Smith & Wesson traceable to missing hotel owner Jeff Clark, the client Rosemary planned to marry--points away from Jacoby. So what does McQuaid do? He takes off for Mexico on Clark's trail, of course, leaving his confused lover to watch out for herself as she scrambles to interview local suspects, uncover a blackmail plot, puzzle over cryptic clues parceled out by the New Wave channeler of a spirit calling herself La Que Sabe, and protect McQuaid's uncooperative son from the forces of evil. Naturally, Bayles covers herself with glory, and McQuaid returns from Mexico covered with, well, apologies. The ingredients in Bayles's fourth case (Hangman's Root, 1994, etc.) are familiar enough, but they're combined with an herbalist's taste--and with enough humor and deftness to make this Albert's strongest book yet.
It looks like a duel to the death between cat-rescuing fanatic Dottie Riddle and her Central Texas State College colleague Miles Harwick, whose latest grant finances the wholesale slaughter of guinea pigs who've endured a long ``weightless'' suspension. Fortified by an animal-rights contingent (including Amy Roth, an unprepossessing young lady who's just full of surprises), Dottie pickets Miles's lab; Miles imprisons one of Dottie's beloved felines and sends her threatening letters; Dottie forges a death threat to herself; but it's Miles who's found dead in his office, strung up like--well, like a guinea pig. Dottie's friend China Bayles, retired from the Houston rat race to an herbal shop in Pecan Springs (Witches' Bane, 1993, etc.), dusts off her law degree to help clear Dottie and soon learns, with the help of a blackmail letter obligingly left behind in the college's computer files, that Miles was hiding much bigger secrets than cruelty to animals: He'd been involved in child molesting and a complex financial scam- -though none of this stuff, rather improbably, is the real reason for his death. In fact, the circumstances of the murder, from motive to method, defy belief. The good news is that, having largely written herself through the pipe-dream Pecan Springs herbalist cozies and dysfunctional family babble that marked her first two mysteries, Albert goes in for more serious plotting and a more generous distribution of suspicion here. Who knows what's next? (Author tour)
Tiny Pecan Springs, Texas, to which lawyer China Bayles retreated from the fast track--opening an herb-and-spice shop next to best friend Ruby's New Age emporium--is suddenly astir with cross burnings, ritual sacrifices, and sightings (and denunciations) of witches. Can murder be far behind? Wealthy, secretive Sybil Rand, who grew poisonous plants in her award- winning garden, is found with her throat slashed--and a Tarot deck and a voodoo doll nearby. Ruby's current lover, Andrew, who had hush-hush dealings with Sybil, may have done it--but then what about Sybil's philandering hubby C.W., his inamorata Jerri, the hustle-a-minute aerobics instructor, or her plain-Jane sister Rita, who's secretly in love with her boss--C.W., natch. There'll be another death, much snooping, and a confrontation in which the killer confesses all while a tape recorder is running.... An improvement over China's debut, Thyme of Death (1992), with a painfully real interlude between China and her newly dried-out mom. But ever so trendy--much dysfunctional family psychobabble-- and even mystery novices will spot the villain early on.
A debut overloaded with good intentions--among them, to create, in lawyer-turned-herbalist China Bayles, a character as strong, forthright, and compelling as Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski--but, here, there's little follow-through. Instead, we get a younger Americanized version of Miss Marple, and the gossips of St. Mary Mead are now the busybodies of Pecan Springs, Texas. When dear, sweet cancer-riddled Jo is found dead, the sheriff thinks she committed suicide. But China and Ruby, the owner of a New Age crystal shop, think not, and debate who makes the best suspect: Jo's angry daughter, Meredith; TV star Roz, who loved and left her; dotty doll-maker Violett, who was furious with Roz; Roz's high-powered New York agent Jane; or a local nabob eager to build a major airport nearby. There'll be a burglary and two more deaths before China and Ruby turn matters over to the sheriff to wrap up. Heavy-handed in its attempts to be both hip and cozy and, at heart--although it rambles on about liberated, feminist women--an old-fashioned view of small-towners with conservative sensibilities. A stodgy beginning of a proposed series.