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by Susan Wittig Albert
Berkley Prime Crime, January 2003
304 pages
ISBN: 0425188280

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China Bayles, for those of you who have not met her, owns and operates a herb shop in a small hill country Texas town. She is married to McQuade, a former cop who now teaches at a local university. China¹s best friend Ruby owns a New Age store in the same building. In this story China is helping another friend, Allison Selby, with a workshop on natural dyes. Allison lives on a small farm and raises goats as well as doing her own dyeing. She lives close to a near-ghost town, Indigo, which the residents are trying to resurrect.

Allison tells China that her uncle, who actually owns the town and the land round about, is planning to sell all of it to the Sandow mine company which strip mines the soft bituminous coal for use in the aluminum smelter owned by Alcoa. The company restores the land, but the soil is contaminated with minerals and during the mining it uses great quantities of the ground water. In addition, the Alcoa smelter is one of the dirtiest plants in Texas. So this news is a disaster for the people who have tried to rebuild Indigo and make a tourist attraction and craft area out of it. All of their work and money has been in vain.

At the festival that night just after the local drama group has finished staging the melodrama, Uncle Casey is shot and killed by what appears to be a booby trap that he had planted to keep people out of the coffee shop. But that is obviously too convenient a solution. Too many people hated him. McQuaid and the local sheriff begin to collect clues, but it is China, as usual, who comes up with the answers.

The major characters are well drawn and I enjoy returning to see what is happening in their lives. The residents of the town, on the other hand, seem to meld together and it was difficult for me, at least, to tell them apart. And since one of them is possibly the murderer that was a frustration. But China is always interesting and full of information and Ruby as her zany sidekick is good for a laugh or two.

The story is intriguing, especially the part of the strip mining company which is truly happening in Texas right now. I did not figure out the murderer until China and Ruby did. Clues were there and the author did play fair with the readers, but the red herrings were so much more enticing. However, the solution developed as the direct result of paranormal powers by Ruby and I have trouble with ³woo woo² means used to solving the puzzle. I think the solution ought to be available to anyone who has been reading the book and certainly should not come through a ³premonition..² This bothered me as I read.

The hill country is beautiful and a very enticing setting. The small farm that Allie runs is most attractive in a bleak sort of way. I think Albert does a good job establishing and portraying the setting.

There was a great deal of information about natural dyes. In fact there was probably too much information. It tended to take the reader out of the story and become an exposition of information. I could have done with somewhat less.

But the story did keep my attention and I do like China, so I dismissed the quibbles I had with the book and thoroughly enjoyed following the story and seeing how all the pieces fit together to complete the puzzle.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, February 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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