It’s Thanksgiving in Pecan Springs, and China is planning to visit her mother, Leatha, and her mother’s husband, Sam, who are enthusiastically embarking on a new enterprise—turning their former game ranch into a vacation retreat for birders. She’s also looking forward to catching up with her friend, game warden Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers, who was recently transferred to the area. But Leatha calls with bad news: Sam has had a heart attack.
How will Leatha manage if Sam can’t carry his share? She does have a helper, Sue Ellen Krause. But China discovers that Sue Ellen, who is in the process of leaving her marriage to the assistant foreman at a large trophy game ranch, is in some serious trouble. Before Sue Ellen can tell China the full story, her car veers off a deserted road and she is killed.
Meanwhile, when a local veterinarian is shot in what appears to be a burglary at his clinic, Mack Chambers believes his murder could be related to fawns stolen from a nearby ranch. As Mack follows the trail, China begins to wonder if Sue Ellen’s death may not have been an accident, and if there’s a connection to the stolen animals. But their search for the truth may put their own lives in danger.
I’m sure that there are those of you who already know this and won’t be surprised. But when I began writing Bittersweet, I happened to look at the list of China Bayles mysteries and was shocked to notice that the book was #23 in the series. I mean, I knew that, at some level—after all, I wrote them.
But still, twenty-three? Oh my gosh!
Thinking about this has reminded me, all over again, of the biggest challenge involved in creating a long-running series: creating familiar characters but keeping their stories fresh and unfamiliar.
Series mysteries have changed since I wrote China’s first mystery, back in 1991. Then, series characters, like Nancy Drew or Travis McGee, didn’t grow or change, even though the series had been going on for decades (the first Nancy was published in 1930). But by the time I wrote the fifth and sixth China mysteries, I had already decided that the series would have an arc: China would change. She would grow older, get married, gain a family, and rebuild her relationship with her mom. Ruby, China’s best friend and business partner, would change too, meeting a Wild Child daughter she didn’t know, falling in love with a dangerous guy, and becoming more comfortable with her psychic skills.
Now, in Bittersweet, China’s and McQuaid’s son Brian is a freshman in college, their daughter is twelve, and China’s relationship with her recently-remarried mother is secure enough so that she can look forward to a family Thanksgiving. Ruby is babysitting with her granddaughter, Baby Grace, so that her Wild Child daughter can get away for a few days.
But while China’s and Ruby’s relationship arcs help to provide stability, familiarity, and continuity in the series, too much of the same thing can get boring—for the author and (I suspect) for readers, too. To meet that challenge, I like to vary the settings of the books, add new central characters and new conflicts, and explore new themes.
In Bittersweet, China goes with her family to South Texas ranch country, for Turkey Day dinner at her mom’s Uvalde County ranch. There, she runs into an old friend, Mackenzie Chambers, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden. Mack is dealing with a new job assignment, an on-the-job mystery (involving a dead veterinarian, deer smuggling, and murder) and an off-duty romance with a hunky fellow lawman.
And, naturally, there’s the signature herb, American bittersweet, which has an evil twin (Oriental bittersweet) and an interesting story all its own. And there are recipes, too, of course.
I know that many series readers enjoy the familiarity of their favorite characters. But at the same time, I hope they’re challenged by the things that challenge me: getting involved in new conflicts, traveling to new and different places, exploring current issues, discovering new things about the plants we live with on this planet of ours. Bittersweet does all of that for me—I hope it will for you, too.
And I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to yet another China Bayles mystery, Blood Orange, in 2016. That will be #24.
Oh, my gosh.
I have to be honest with you - these books are starting to feel mundane and repetitive. I have been a fan for a long time, but with each one, I feel like they've become predictable and somewhat boring. I found myself flipping through the pages, not really absorbing much of the story. The mystery is predictable and the characters have lost my interest.
That being said, I still think that Susan Wittig Albert is a phenomenal writer, and I still believe that there are stories to be told about China Bayles and her brood. I just hope that when the next one comes out, it's reminiscent of the former books that made me fall in love with this series.
Rating: 3 stars
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All conclusions reached are my own.