Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hangman's Root By Susan Wittig Albert

I have always enjoyed a good mystery. But I don't like the hard-boiled, gritty true crime kind of mysteries. I prefer my mysteries less graphic and with more of an enjoyable story line. I love the process of a mystery, the subtle scattering of clues, the inevitable red herrings and the denouement that reveals the whole who, what and why. I always wonder if the butler did it, and if it was with a candlestick from the dining room or the lead pipe from the garage. Sometimes I figure it out ahead of time, other times the identity of the killer is a complete surprise to me. I like it, either way. There is nothing like curling up with a good book that is a great read with a satisfying conclusion.

I buy a lot of books on Amazon.com, and one of the especially nice things they do is offer you recommendations based on the books you have purchased in the past. I get some great recommendations. I also get some really weird ones and I give them a look and simply delete them. Computers aren't infallible, unfortunately, and they don't always have good taste in books!

One of the recommendations I got was the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert. The book I just finished was Hangman's Root. As a woman, I truly love mystery writers who feature a strong female protagonist as the main character in their books. I also love mystery series with the same character. It is nice to get to know a character, get comfortable with them and feel like you know them. Then when you read another book by the same author, it is like meeting an old friend that you really like to spend time with.

This book is not the first one in the series. It is actually the third book in the series. I borrowed it from the library because I didn't want to buy a book if I didn't like the protagonist. I know, it's probably cheap, but the library is any avid reader's good friend, especially when you don't have a lot of extra cash to spend on books. I usually spend my extra money on things for my kids and even then I have to stretch every penny. So I use the library to try out book series before buying. Just call me cautious, I guess.

Hangman's Root was an excellent introduction to China Bayles. She is an ex lawyer in Houston, Texas. She worked as a criminal attorney until she got tired of it. She moved to a small fictional town named Pecan Springs and became the proprietor of an herb shop called Thyme and Seasons. She shares the building with the Crystal Cave, which is a new age shop owned by her best friend, Ruby Wilcox. Her book is filled with colorful characters that are interesting and well written.

China is involved with Mike McQuaid, who is a retired Houston Homicide detective that decided to quit the cop business, get a Ph.D. in criminal justice and become a teacher in the Criminal Justice department at Central Texas State University, which is also located in Pecan Springs. They have an uneasy relationship, because she comes with plenty of emotional baggage from a difficult upbringing with an alcoholic mother and a picky, snooty cat named Khat. McQuaid comes with a young eleven year old son and a dog named Howard Cosell. He is divorced, as well. This means they navigate the relationship waters very carefully. The intricacies of their relationship provide an interesting counterpoint to the story line, and since she likes to solve mysteries and he is a former cop, they spend a lot of their time tied up in the current mystery. In Hangman's Root, they are considering moving in together with his son and both of their pets. McQuaid wants to take their relationship to the next level. China is not as sold on the idea as he is, but she really wants to expand her shop because it is so small, and her living quarters at the back of the shop will make for a nice addition.

The story begins with what must be a Texas institution, a rattlesnake sacking championship. I had never heard of this, but from the story, it seems to be a popular activity in Texas. To each their own, of course! China feels badly for the snakes, and prefers to be somewhere else. She goes to visit a friend, whose nickname is the Cat Lady instead. China's feelings about the rattlesnake sacking competition are an excellent beginning to a story that is about animal rights and whether or not animals should be used in laboratory experiments.

Dottie Riddle is also a teacher at the local University. She teaches biology, and is the only woman in the entire biology department. She is also a cat lover, and rescues and cares for hundreds of cats. It is her passion, and she is very adamant about the rights of animals. It is at Dottie's that we get a glimpse of her nearest neighbor, who is also a professor at the college. Miles Harwick is an unpleasant little man who hates Dottie and threatens to trap and kill her cats if he finds them in his yard again. Dottie loses her temper and throws a hammer toward him, breaking his garage window.

When Miles is found hanged in his office a few days later, Dottie is the key suspect once it is discovered to be murder and not suicide. Part of the rope used to hang him is found in Dottie's garage, and a drug used to euthanize animals is found in Miles' coffee cup as well as Dottie's house. Several of her hairs are wound in the knot for the rope, and it looks like Dottie is going to be tried for this crime. China knows that Dottie did not do it, and calls a good friend who is also a lawyer to come and represent Dottie. China and her good friend, Ruby agree to do the legwork for the Whiz, as she refers to her lawyer friend, Justine Wyzinski. Justine calls China Hot Shot and these nicknames are a holdover from their days together in law school.

Susan Wittig Albert introduces other characters to make the twists and turns of the story more interesting and also a lot more tangled. China's best friend, Ruby discovers that the daughter she placed for adoption many years ago has tracked her down. Her name is Amy and she is a student at CTSU. She is also an active member of PETA, and she violently objects to the research that Miles Harwick had been planning to do. Amy is by degrees a sullen young adult and an outspoken activist.

There is also a young lab assistant named Kevin Scott. He is a young man who stutters and seems to be aware of how Miles Harwick is treating his lab animals but does not seem to want to do anything about.

In any institution of higher learning, there are always politics. Professors compete to be published and garner perks like an easy class schedule and a better office. The head of the biology department is Frank Castle. He is a suave, attractive dresser whose main goal is to get the University to build a bigger and better biology building complete with a state of the art research lab. He is certain that his friend and best researcher, Miles Harwick will be able to do a research project that will make this possible and put CTSU on the map. He is ambitious and fairly intelligent. He is protected by his secretary, Cynthia Leeds, who does her best to make sure that Castle's goals are realized. She is one of those background people who seem to always know what is going on.

Sheila Dawson is the new head of campus security, and right away, China is suspicious of how friendly she seems to be with McQuaid. Blonde, attractive and petite, Sheila turns out to be very good at her job, innovative and intelligent. China has a wary respect for her once she sees Sheila in action, and nicknames her Smart Cookie.

Throw into the mix a man who has a couple of greyhound dogs that has been seen at Miles Harwick's house, an accountant, a reluctant police chief and a few others, and you have a story that is definitely worth an afternoon. China and Ruby track down leads which take them in some interesting directions. China quickly figures out Ruby's long-lost daughter is not all that she seems to be, and evidence disappears just as it seems that Dottie will be cleared of the murder.

I would give you more clues about who really killed Miles Harwick, but I refuse to spoil the ending of a mystery for anyone. I will say that I was surprised about whom the actual killer turned out to be, and I liked the fact that there were many people with valid motives for killing Miles Harwick, and not everyone is completely innocent in this story. I appreciate a story that has black and white and shades of gray when it comes to people, because it is very true to life. No one is all good or bad, and everyone can rationalize some of their behaviors and actions based on an incident or event. Susan Wittig Albert has a very good handle on human character, and I found the people in her novel to be very three-dimensional and realistic. All of them have those little quirky things that make us all human.

China does triumph in the end, and Dottie is cleared to go home to her cats, sans one annoying neighbor. Things go on, with some people getting what they deserve, and others just getting a slap on the hand because of University politics, which is scarily similar to real life. China and McQuaid find a gorgeous house to rent that is spacious enough for two people, an eleven year old kid and two animals that detest each other. It is wonderful Victorian style house located near a small creek, and is complete with a turret. I am sure that in the next book I will find out how well China and McQuaid adjust to living together, along with another smart and funny mystery.

I am excited to have found another author I enjoy, and I encourage anyone who loves mysteries to check out Susan Wittig Albert and her character, China Bayles. You won't be disappointed, I promise!

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