Thursday, May 13, 2010

Holly Blues

It’s nice to be back in Pecan Springs, Texas after the previous China Bayles mystery, Wormwood, had China on adventure in Kentucky Shaker country. Susan Wittig Albert’s latest installment, Holly Blues (Berkley, 2010) begins with the mysterious arrival to Pecan Springs of Sally, Mike McQuaid’s ex-wife and Brian’s mother. Sally is not exactly China’s nemesis but she is a perpetual nuisance to China, McQuaid and her own sister. In the past she has proven to be a liar, a cheat, a squanderer and all around bad news.

No one’s quite sure why Sally has come to Pecan Springs just a few days before Christmas. Neither China or McQuaid, happily married for many volumes now, warm to her presence, though their realization that no matter what, Sally is still Brian’s mother, she should be treated with some respect despite how crazy her stories sound and the various sorts of trouble they expect her to bring. Indeed it’s not long before China learns Sally has lied to her about why she came to Pecan Springs from her home in Kansas City. And soon, they both learn Sally has a stalker who has followed her to Texas.

McQuaid, away on business in Omaha, leaves China to deal with Sally and all of the increased holiday traffic at the shop herb shop she owns with Ruby, her venerable sidekick whose back story in Holly Blues isn’t quite as deep as in other installments, but nonetheless flawlessly realized and imagined.

Sally inexplicably disappears just as she and China were worried about the stalker. Meanwhile, someone near and dear to all of them is found dead in a north Texas town. There are a few murders, all off scene, and another subplot involving the decades-old murder of Sally’s parents in Kansas, which McQuaid is persuaded by Sally to investigate since he is in nearby Nebraska. Albert uses a narrative technique she first employed in Nightshade (one of the best entries in the whole series) that gives events from McQuaid’s perspective, a break from the first-person China narrative. I thought the technique was used to even greater effect in Holly Blues because McQuaid was far removed from the happenings in Pecan Springs and so we could get his point of view on things while he was away, things that China could not have told us from her real-time first-person perspective.

Holly Blues is a solid, welcome installment in the unique and expertly crafted China Bayles series. Few are better than Albert at bringing the complex strands of a new mystery puzzle together with the comfort of the setting and characters we have grown to love.