Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Female Sleuths at Work

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Female Sleuths at Work

Article excerpt

WITCHES' BANE By Susan Wittig Albert 273 pages, Scribner's, $20 QUAKER WITNESS By Irene Allen 255 pages, Villard, $18

THE GOAL of most beginning mystery writers is to establish a leading character who will capture the interest of readers enough to make them look for more books in a series based on that same character.

Often, the crucial test of whether such a series has been successfully born is the second book. If it flops, the series may never reach the third-book stage.

Both Susan Wittig Albert and Irene Allen introduced new female sleuths to the booming mystery-novel field a year ago. Now, second books by each writer are in the bookstores, and each second book is better than the first was.

Albert's leading character is China Bayles, a 44-year-old single woman who gave up practicing law in a high-powered Houston firm to open an herb store in a small town in central Texas.

As "Witches' Bane" opens, Bayles has joined a class in tarot-card reading taught by her friend and neighboring shopkeeper, Ruby. Another member of the class soon is found murdered with a knife stolen from Ruby's shop, and rumors of a satanic cult begin circulating in the town.

When Ruby's boyfriend is accused of the murder, China is pressed into duty as a lawyer again to prove the boyfriend innocent and find the real killer. With the aid of her lover, Mike McQuaid, a former police detective, she unwinds a tangled snarl of clues to learn the truth.

In the process, China is forced to face some truths about her own life - her unhappy childhood, her hostility toward her alcoholic mother and her reluctance to marry and become a stepmother to Mike's young son.

By making China Bayles a more complicated, interesting character, Albert has gone a long way toward establishing this series as a success. …

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