Monday, November 30, 2015

A Charming Thyme | Susan Wittig Albert

“Susan Wittig Albert's novels featuring ex-lawyer and herb-shop proprietor China Bayles have won acclaim for their rich characterization and witty, suspenseful stories of crime and passion in small-town Texas. Now, when China's friend Jo dies of an apparent suicide, China looks behind the quaint facade of Pecan Springs. Though she finds a lot of friendly faces, China is sure that one of them hides the heart of a killer.”
~ Thyme of Death | Goodreads
Thyme of Death took a little adjusting to the character of China Bayles.  As well as her small-town Texas environment's structure.  Eventually I got it.  And by the book’s end–I loved it.  As the first book in Albert's series, I found myself dedicated soon after the last page.  

Nevertheless, the book features China’s first-person voice and perspective.  And having her strum through her range as ex-lawyer to herb shop owner was unique and effective for her situation.  So I loved her blend of pragmatic sense (lawyer voice) with her knowledge of herbs and their effects.  Those two elements worked well for my investment in her character–and of course the plot.  Equally, I appreciated her character and backstory on her extreme change in occupations.  There was something there and present to her character.  Something I found authentic and magnetic.  And there was just enough personality and open-end developmental avenues available to her.  Especially concerning her rocky love life.  On top of that, she was witty and straightforward.  Just the way I love my female sleuths.
As for the actual mystery I’m going to say this: cozy, charming, and ridiculous.
The tone of the book fit smoothly into the cozy mystery genre.  It read like a dribbling, syrupy small-town mystery.  There were lots of “sit down” talks with drinks.  Lazy strolls through neighborhoods.  Conversations with eccentric locals with eccentric hobbies.  And even the dusty detective viewing murder with his cigarette ashes sweeping over the scene.  (You could consider such a character in a cozy mystery a cliche.)  So much of each was present for the book's tone, a tone in which I would analogize to sipping tea in low country.  However, despite the book’s languid resonance, I have to admit the determination and assiduous China and friends stole my attention.  So I was never bothered or bored with the actual mystery's unfolding.  In fact, I found myself absorbed and guessing the solution comfortably along the way.
All went out the window at the end of the book, though.  It seemed like Albert spent time serving languid small-town murder that she felt the end needed to switch into overdrive.  I won’t give away the details; but I’ll let it be clear how I felt the ending seemed rushed, ridiculous and out of place.  Oh, and unbelievably coincidental.
Yet.  I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.  
On top of my love of China Bayles’ voice, and the book's wiggling abrupt shift in tone; I really enjoyed several of the themes Albert toyed with.  Secret lovers and new age concerns are only a few.  And the last piece of highlight: China–herself–pays reference to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
A win.
"I rolled my sherry glass between my hands.  With any luck, tonight would get me the proof Meredith was asking for.  But if I told her what I was up to, she'd want in on it.  As wired as she was, she'd blow the whole thing.  She'd get herself or Ruby hurt.  She'd get me hurt."
"I didn't doubt that show business was no business in which to find true love and happiness.  It was probably a lot like the legal business–full of arrogant, greedy people glad to take their bite ad then some.  And it wasn't any fun to keep looking over your shoulder, wondering who was going to slip it to you next.  If that was why Roz had turned down the contract, I could certainly sympathize.  I might even applaud.  But I didn't particularly want to listen to her chorus of complaints.  So I just gave a non-committal 'hmmm.'  Luckily, we were almost at Meredith's, and there wasn't time for any more confidences."
"I dropped my arms with a sigh.  I knew the signals.  I could forget about sex for the moment."
"The door opened and I followed the cat into the semi-darkened living room, which smelled of furniture polish, dusty drapes, and stale cooking odors.  Violett stood clutching a navy cardigan around her.  I could see why Constance had sent her home.  She had the look of someone teetering on the edge.  Her hair was in strings, her eyes deeply shadowed; lines etched her mouth.  There was a tic at the corner of her right eye." 

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