China Bayles, Book #23
By Susan Wittig Albert
Author Website: susanalbert.com
New from the author of Death Come Quickly and Widow’s Tears. This Thanksgiving, be grateful for China Bayles—who teams up with an old friend to solve a complex case of theft and murder in a South Texas ranching community…
It’s Thanksgiving in Pecan Springs, and China is planning to visit her mother, Leatha, and her mother’s husband, Sam, who are enthusiastically embarking on a new enterprise—turning their former game ranch into a vacation retreat for birders. She’s also looking forward to catching up with her friend, game warden Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers, who was recently transferred to the area. But Leatha calls with bad news: Sam has had a heart attack.
How will Leatha manage if Sam can’t carry his share? She does have a helper, Sue Ellen Krause. But China discovers that Sue Ellen, who is in the process of leaving her marriage to the assistant foreman at a large trophy game ranch, is in some serious trouble. Before Sue Ellen can tell China the full story, her car veers off a deserted road and she is killed.
Meanwhile, when a local veterinarian is shot in what appears to be a burglary at his clinic, Mack Chambers believes his murder could be related to fawns stolen from a nearby ranch. As Mack follows the trail, China begins to wonder if Sue Ellen’s death may not have been an accident, and if there’s a connection to the stolen animals. But their search for the truth may put their own lives in danger… (Goodreads)
There is never a boring paragraph in a China Bayles mystery! The 23rd China Bayles novel can be read as a standalone, as the author so easily includes enough background on the regular characters that it seems like the first one. Even for long-term fans of China, gentle reminders can be helpful if it has been a while since reading the last one. The story itself leaves the reader waiting eagerly for the next novel.
The author begins each chapter with information about various herbs and plants. The information is imparted in clear, concise detail related to that chapter. For example, there are two kinds of bittersweet, but I won’t *spoil* the correlations used throughout the novel. Most events are relayed from the first-person perspective of China. We also get to know “Mack” Mackenzie Chambers, a game warden for the State of Texas, and then see the mysteries specific to what is occurring in her job as they interrelate with mysteries at the ranch of China’s mother and stepfather.
China’s stepfather has been hospitalized for a heart emergency, then surgery, and her mother Leatha has had a hard time celebrating Thanksgiving when he can’t be at home. China, her hubby McQuaid, son Brian and daughter Caitlyn join Leatha for the holiday. Mack, a friend of China’s, will join them, and Susan, a friend of Leatha’s who is moving into a guest cabin to escape her husband and help at the ranch, is also present. An older veterinarian who had talked with Mack about some wildlife issues, is found murdered, then another murder occurred. These may or may not be related to a mystery and criminal activity in Mack’s location of responsibility. It is up to China, Mack, and Deputy Ethan Conroy to discover whether these pieces fit together or are simply separate events.
The author has years of planning the core men and women who compliment each other; her gift for conversation and the action throughout the novel prove her excellence at characterization. China and Mack are three-dimensional, ready to step out of the pages. Between the two, I would probably want Mack as a closer friend only because we learn more about her as a person, and I would tend to want to write down every other sentence that China speaks. It is not hero worship, but rather that much of what she talks about is the stuff that good classes or PBS programs are made of – history and uses of many plants and herbs and what she might be learning or refreshing her knowledge about in relationship to the current mystery. She and her husband compliment each other; they each have their field of expertise to share and life experiences to build on.
The plot is complex, with smaller mysteries exploding from within of a larger, deeper mystery. While we do get to see a few moments with at least one of the bad guys/ gals (without giving up their names or identifying details), those glimpses are definitely insufficient to get them behind bars for any of the crimes. The plot includes a situation that I had not heard of as yet, so it has been an educational journey as well as journey fraught with increasing suspense. The plot twists and turns kept this reader engaged throughout. If I am vague about the plot, it is to avoid accidental spoilers; I would rather encourage the cozy mystery aficionado who appreciate time-tested and strengthened relationships, intelligent female protagonists, spices and herbs, and multi-dimensional mysteries. I highly recommend ‘Bittersweet’; one will find excitement, suspense and information on using various parts of plants to enhance foods when cooking.