Book Review: Readings

Susan Wittig Albert


Mistletoe Man: A China Bales Mystery

by Susan Wittig Albert

Berkeley, 296 pp., $21.95

We all know that good fences make good neighbors, but judging from Mistletoe Man, the latest herbal whodunit in local writer Susan Wittig Albert's China Bales series, sloppy fences make good lawsuits. The recently married China is a recovering lawyer who owns Thyme and Seasons, the local herbal shop in the fictional Hill Country hamlet of Pecan Springs. The shop is cozy and profitable with stone walls, bottles of essential oils, handmade wreaths, and an antique cash register to ring it all up on. China's best friend Ruby Wilcox runs the equally alternative shop The Crystal Cave. Fifty years ago two women running these kinds of businesses in rural Texas would have been run out of town on their broomsticks.

But times change. Pecan Springs seems as progressive as Austin with easier parking downtown. China and Ruby are pillars of the Pecan Springs community and China has even been invited to open up the "big, white Victorian house" where China and her new husband McQuaid live (along with his 13-year-old son) for a Christmas tour of homes.

The Thyme and Seasons shop is having a good Christmas, so much so that China is having a hard time keeping handmade wreaths in stock. Alas, China has trouble with the various people who supply her decorations. In fact, the cranky mistletoe seller turns up suspiciously dead. Soon after, Terry and Donna, the wreath-making women who live next door to him, quickly become top suspects.

Each chapter of Mistletoe Man is preceded by a short passage providing details about mistletoe -- its cultivation, harvest, and usage in different cultures, from the ancient Greeks to its presence in The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer. Some of these short passages are from China's own book, Mistletoe Magic.

While longtime fans of the Bales books will be rewarded with the true-to-the-series formula, Mistletoe Man often seems pedantic and predictable. Part of the trouble is China herself. She's a nice-enough character, but she's so earnest! She's no quippy Kinsey Millhone. This is the ninth book in the China Bales series, so it's difficult to keep things fresh. I wasn't compelled to finish the book in one sitting; the main problem with Mistletoe Man is that it feels devoid of passion and excitement. And I saw the end coming long before I should have. It's the literary equivalent of meeting your old aunt Irene under the mistletoe: Tepid, not spicy.

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Mistletoe Man: A China Bales Mystery, Susan Wittig Albert

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