By Susan Wittig Albert
Berkley Prime Crime, April 2013 ($25.95)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
China Bayles and her best friend Ruby have built a mini retail empire in the small Texas town of Pecan Springs. The herb emporium, New Age store, tea shop and catering business keep them and their staff busy, and they like it that way. Sometimes, though a gal needs a break, and Ruby has reached that point. She is burnt out, lost in grief for the man she loved and lost two years ago, not sure how to go on with her life. When a childhood friend calls and asks her to visit, she should be glad to go, but her inner voice screams for her to turn down the request.
Ruby's friend Claire has inherited a Victorian mansion near Roundtop, Texas, and wants Ruby to help her decide what she should do with it. Ruby knows the house well. She only visited it once, but the visit was so momentous that every detail is still imprinted in her mind. Claire's great-aunt lived there during the years when Ruby and Claire both spent their summers in the area. The summer when Ruby was ten years old, she saw something impossible, something not of this world. She realized she'd inherited her grandmother's psychic ability, and it was not a happy realization. She spent the next years trying to contain and damp down her gift, and had managed pretty well, using her intuitive skills to read Tarot cards and give astrological readings, occasionally calling on her deeper psychic abilities. She feared that if she went back to the house where she'd had her first vision, she might lose the tight control she'd maintained, perhaps even lose herself. Despite her misgivings, it seemed that the universe conspired to get her back to the Blackwood mansion.
Rachel Blackwood woke up on the morning of September 8, 1900 in a cheerful mood. She had a blissful life with her banker husband and five precious children, living in one of the finest homes in Galveston, Texas. It was her oldest son's tenth birthday, and she and her housekeeper, Colleen, were busy getting ready for his party. The children played excitedly in the warm rain, until it became a downpour. The day that had begun with promise and happiness would end in tragedy. The hurricane that struck Galveston that terrible weekend remains the greatest national tragedy in history, with between eight and ten thousand lives lost. Rachel survived, but never recovered from the events of that dreadful time. She built another home far from the coast, trying to recreate the Galveston mansion from memory. It is that home, a crooked, sad parody of the original, that Claire has inherited.
The past and present collide on another stormy Texas night as Ruby and Claire try to lay the ghosts to rest and bring peace to a tormented soul.
This is the twenty-first China Bayles mystery, and it is, to this reader's mind, the best in the series. While China has an active role in the story, it is Ruby's tale to tell, and it is a tale well-told. There is a much greater "woo-woo" element to this than in previous books, and one will have to suspend some disbelief to get the full enjoyment of this sad, yet charming, ghost story. There is a secondary modern-day mystery as well, tied up neatly with the main story, and plenty of information on the lore of herbs. The Galveston hurricane was a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. Rachel Blackwood's experiences enable the reader to see the event on a personal level. Ms. Albert has done a masterful job of recreating that weekend of sorrow, full of sounds and smells and color and sadness.
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