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By Susan Wittig Albert
Berkley Prime Crime, 2011 ($25.95)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
China Bayles is busier than ever with her herb shop, the tea room she owns with best friend Ruby, and the booth she and Ruby have at the Farmer's Market. On her way home after a long day, she sees a trailer house in flames, and calls 911. The operator tells her to stay put, but China is worried that someone might be inside. As she draws closer, she hears a young woman's voice crying out for help. Before she can find a way in, the trailer explodes. China has only minor injuries, but she is haunted by the girl's voice and the knowledge that she was burned alive. It's even worse when she learns it was arson: the girl was murdered. Her husband Mike, a retired cop turned private investigator, is out of town. When she calls him, he tells her to let the sheriff handle it, but that's not going to happen. Her investigative skills have helped solve crimes before, and this one is personal. She finds out who the victim was, and a whole lot more.
The local newspaper has a new reporter, ambitious and obviously meant for bigger things. When she finds out China was at the scene of the fire, she interviews her and gets some good leads. China is worried that Jessica is getting too personally involved with the case, especially when she finds out about her background. China is right to be worried. Jessica disappears, and when her boss and the authorities don't take it seriously, China makes it her job to find her.
China and Ruby have expanded their business by including information about herbs and flowers that can be used medicinally, and in certain cases to alter or enhance moods, or even to kill. They have planted a garden containing these plants in Ruby's back yard to keep it secluded from the general public, and China gives tours and talks there periodically.
China has participated in raising Mike's son Brian for years. She and Mike now have custody of 10-year-old Caitlin, the daughter of China's murdered half-brother. Back when she was a high-powered Houston attorney, she never envisioned a life in a small town, married and raising children, but now it's hard to imagine anything else.
Even small towns have problems with drugs these days, including some that are made from "natural" ingredients like those in Ruby's special garden. Drug dealers are dangerous, no matter where they are, and China discovers this the hard way.
This is number nineteen in the China Bayles series. The characters are well-defined, and they have continued to grow and develop through the years. Albert's depiction of life in a small Hill Country Texas town is spot on. As an added bonus, there are recipes and other information on the use of herbs in the back of the book. This is another fine entry in an entertaining series.
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