Susan Wittig Albert,
Mistletoe Man
(Berkeley Publishing, 2000)

Mistletoe Man is the new novel in Susan Wittig Albert's series featuring China Bayles, the owner of an herb shop in a small Texas town. I've read several other books in the series and found them quite enjoyable, and this one was no exception.

One of the things that sets Albert's series apart from many other of the village "cozies" is her sense of place. Although I've not yet been to Texas, Albert evokes the landscape, climate and culture in a way that distinguishes her series. The roots of this style of mystery are British, and most of the other authors writing in it stick pretty close to the roots; while the series may be set in New England or even Wisconsin, there's not a lot to differentiate them from similar tales set in English villages. While this is not a flaw per se, I enjoy reading books that take me to different locations. Albert's evocation of the weather, specifically, is excellent; when I read one set in the Texas summer I feel warm even when it's winter outside, and this one, set in winter, brought shivers.

The most characteristic aspect of this book, though, is China's integration with her community. This is both a strength and a weakness. Albert writes the various people very well; each has a distinctive voice, and she subtly inserts enough background for each of them that tells or reminds us of who they are, and what relationships they have. I read a lot and appreciate it when an author can do this; I need reminding from book to book of who is who, since there have been a number of other books in between those of any one author. Albert does this very well, and without the awkward paragraphs of explanation that can bog down the narrative.

One of the reasons we read ongoing series is to get the next installment in the lives of the characters. Mistletoe Man does not disappoint in this; much of China's time is spent involved in her network of relationships. Her concern for her best friend Ruby, who is withdrawing from her and won't say why, preoccupies her for much of the book. Friendships are very important, and it's nice to see one between adult women given the importance it deserves. I suspected the reason for the withdrawal long before China did; in this area, Albert set up the background for the explanation perhaps a bit too well, making China look a little dim for never having even considered the true reason. From Ruby's point of view, though, her behavior made perfect sense under the circumstances, as did China's if one overlooks her obliviousness.

The ongoing involvement with the people in the community, while interesting in itself, can be a problem with this sort of mysteries, though. When it's an established series, one can be quite sure that new characters appearing are involved somehow in the mystery; with the reduced cast of suspects, it can be too easy to figure it out prematurely. This happened here; without giving too much away, I think I can say that there was the victim, the red herrings who were involved with the victim, and another person who had little to do with this thread in the book but who was the guilty party. It would help if the mystery plot were more integrated into the community as a whole (although that's one thing suspension of disbelief is good for). Additionally, I don't appreciate the rather crude tactic of having the characters read something that makes all clear, but not disclosing the contents to us at the time; this leaves the reader feeling manipulated, and not subtly.

While that was an annoyance toward the end of the book, it's a minor one. Mistletoe Man was a very enjoyable read. I particularly liked the mistletoe lore that headed each chapter, and while it does occur during the Christmas season, the plot is not strictly Christmas-related, making it a pleasurable read even in July (when the cold of the weather depicted might be welcome). This book, and the series, are well-written and entertaining stories in the modern cozy vein. I'll continue to read the installments, and plan to pick up the few that I've missed.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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