“Give ’em hell.”
That’s tough-talking China Bayle’s way of offering encouragement. But during Halloween week in Pecan Springs, Texas, it comes perilously close to the truth. This pumpkin-spiced mystery is firmly down-t0-earth, but comes with a hot sprinkle of fire and brimstone, a sideways glimpse of Santeria, some New Agey pagan playacting, accusations of witchcraft, and the suspicion of a Satanic cult.
Susan Wittig Albert made an splash with her debut mystery in the China Bayles series. The first China Bayles cozy, Thyme of Death, won both an Anthony award from the 1992 World Mystery Convention and an Agatha award at the Malice Domestic mystery-fan convention. Witches’ Bane, the second in the series, was published in 1993. It’s a fun, seasonal read with a frisson of Halloween spook.
China Bayles landed in the picturesque small town of Pecan Springs after burning out from a demanding career as a high-powered criminal lawyer in Houston. All she wants to do is cultivate her herb garden and sell herbal teas and potpourri in her tidy Main Street shop. But when a wealthy socialite gets her throat cut on Halloween night, China’s training and past career create an undertow of curiosity — and expectations from her friends — that drag her into investigating the case.
It’s a traditional detective story in a contemporary, cozy-style setting. The town of Pecan Springs is vividly drawn, from the details of seasonal changes in the landscape to the mix of Southern, Western, and Mexican influences that make Texas culture unique. No matter where you’re from, you’ll find the secondary small-town characters recognizable, relatable, and entertaining.
China’s love interest is an ex-cop named McQuaid, whose new career as a criminology professor may take him out of Pecan Springs to bigger and better opportunities. China isn’t sure whether he’d ask her to go with him — or if she even wants to be asked. Her best friend Ruby owns the New-Age crystal shop next door. Ruby is still “finding herself” post-divorce, and her search seems to lead her into the arms of one unsuitable man after another. The most recent candidate is Andrew Drake, an arty photographer who’s new to town and won’t talk about his past.
In the week leading up to Halloween, Pecan Springs is uneasy. A series of petty crimes and disturbing scenes — livestock killed, a fire set — are blamed on a group of migrant workers practicing Santeria. The conservative, religious folks in town are just superstitious enough to believe there’s real evil looming. A local wanna-be televangelist known for publicity stunts shows up to take advantage of the situation, and winds up leading a picket line in front of China and Ruby’s shops, accusing them of witchcraft.
When Ruby’s shop is ransacked on Halloween eve, things get serious. Before the police can even find a lead, one of Ruby’s friends turns up dead in what appears to be a ritual murder. Fortunately, Ruby has an alibi, but her boyfriend Andrew is the prime suspect. With the townsfolk and the police predisposed to pin everything on Andrew as the shadowy newcomer, Ruby begs China to help prove his innocence.
China’s reluctant to get involved. But the final push comes when China’s estranged mother shows up for a visit and she wants to have a serious talk. China’s happy for any excuse to get out of the house and stay busy, and a murder investigation is as good a reason as any.
I’m particularly taken with the character of China Bayles. I have trouble finding contemporary cozy series to read, because so many female protagonists just irritate me for one reason or another. First-person perspective is wildly popular, but there are very few people whose heads I can really enjoy walking around inside. China makes the cut.
She’s jaded and a bit hard-boiled. Her vulnerabilities and insecurities have nothing to do with her intelligence, competence, or looks. That’s incredibly refreshing in a female protagonist! Instead, she worries about getting in over her head emotionally with McQuaid, with her mother, and with the stress and baggage of criminal cases that she wanted to leave behind. Her history with her mother, and her confusion about how to deal with the changes in their relationship, are complex and realistic without being morbid or depressing. The author has created a really likeable, believably flawed character.
I’m generally leery of heavily themed cozy series. Too often, the protagonist’s career or interests become simply a gimmick (quilt patterns, cake recipes, dog yoga, for crying out loud?) I enjoy a twee pun or a tasty recipe as much as the next person (maybe more), but it’s no substitute for proper character development and a substantive plot.
China Bayles hits it just right. She’s not a bumbling amateur, but an intelligent and experienced investigator. Her passion for gardening works organically into the plot (see what I mean about twee puns?) Albert’s deep knowledge of the topic and her roots in the Texas hill country blossom into useful clues, character insight, and an immersive sense of place. I give it a solid four stars.
Albert writes about her real-life Texas garden and its influence on her books on her blog, Lifescapes. If you like gardening, you’ll want to check it out – there’s beautiful photos and a lot to learn.
By request, I include a “Squick Factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material.
The murder and the evidence of Santeria practices are described with a bit more detail than you’d expect in a really “cozy” cozy mystery, but not overly graphic. China’s relationship with McQuaid includes a PG-13 bedroom scene. For sensitive readers, I’d give the story a Squick Factor of 2.
Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!
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