Susan Wittig Albert has been on this reviewer’s radar since the beginning of the Pecan Springs/China Bayles mysteries—some 19-plus years! The author is never boring, always innovative and creative with her herbal lore and finely crafted mysteries.
This latest book is no exception. The star of this book, though, is not China, although of course she has a strong presence. It is Sheila Dawson, the first female Chief of Police in Pecan Springs. In a primarily male police force, in a town where her significant other was County Sheriff, she already has a tough job. This book focuses on Dawson’s work as Chief in a particularly puzzling suicide that proves to be murder. The local computer guru is found dead in his kitchen, at first glance a suicide. But as Dawson investigates and China Bayles provides some insight, the case becomes full of twists and turns.
In a small town, it becomes news and fast when one of their own dies. Larry Kirk, the dead man, stumbled into a mess not of his own making. A robbery at his shop points to a motive and a murderer, but when the alleged perpetrator, caught in the B&E, doesn’t show up at the agreed time to turn himself in, Dawson is up to her neck in nastiness. There were things on the robber’s computer, in Larry’s shop to be fixed, that George Timms wanted out of the public purview. Where did he go? What was he responsible for? Who knew?
To add to the turmoil and frustration for both China and Sheila, their men, both now working together as private investigators, are headed for dangerous part of Mexico on a case. Trying to do their own tasks and not fret too much over their out-of-touch guys, China works her herb store and tea shop, takes care of her kids, and keeps a close eye on Sheila’s case.
The prologue greets us with four members of the Texas Star Quilting Club, a gassy bunch of older women ranging from their early 70s to early 80s. They have their fingers on the pulse of the town gossip and know all about Larry Kirk’s impending divorce, possible lovers in the woodwork, and where the likeliest culprits live. I really enjoy Albert’s books that take a different path, as this one does. Seeing more of Dawson behind the scenes and in her personal life makes her more three-dimensional to the reader. As with Nightshade, written partly in China’s husband’s voice, it is wonderful to see that different point of view. I am so tired of mystery series that are just repeats of the same basic plot and character studies, over and over again.
Susan Wittig Albert is an expert crafter, herbalist and writer, but she is not China’s alter ego. She is a talent who weaves her knowledge and interests in her books and offers new and stimulating material to her readers. Albert’s books are the kind you read over and over, for pleasure and enjoyment. And don’t forget the herbal background (cat’s claw, an herb with “hooks, designed to clutch and hold on to anyone or anything that comes near”) and the recipes, which in this volume include such culinary tidbits as McQuaid’s Favorite Breakfast Burritos and China Bayles’ Curry and Cardamom Cookies. Whether you try the recipes or read the book (or both), you will find Cat's Claw a delicious delight.