The Last Chance Olive Ranch, A China Bayles Mystery, by Susan Witting Albert, Berkley Prime Crime hardcover, On sale: April 4, 2017, $27.00, 291 pages,

By Susan Witting Albert

SusanWittigAlbert2017 is a landmark year in the history of the China Bayles series, for The Last Chance Olive Ranch is the 25th book in the series. Back in 1992, when Thyme of Death was published, I couldn’t have imagined that China, Ruby, and I would still be sleuthing, 25 books later. But we are, and I know I speak for them—and for all their friends in Pecan Springs—when I say that we’ve loved every minute of it.

If you’ve been with the series for a while, you know that (unlike the characters in some other mystery series), the fictional people in Pecan Springs grow and change with the years, just as you and I and our real-people friends do. For me, that’s been one of the pleasures of this series: watching China and Ruby as they not only solve whatever mystery they stumble across, but as they meet the challenges of changing lives. This series has a strong character arc—and for me, that makes it fun to write.

When we first met China in Thyme of Death, she was a stubbornly single woman. Her herb shop, Thyme and Seasons, was a refuge from her high-stress life as a criminal defense attorney, and the small Texas town of Pecan Springs was a slow-lane getaway from fast-paced Houston. But by Book 6 (Love Lies Bleeding) China has to decide whether to marry her longtime lover, Mike McQuaid—and she does, finally, in Book 8, Lavender Lies. McQuaid is a package deal, for he brings with him his young son Brian and their basset hound, Howard Cosell—too large a family to cram into China’s bachelor-girl apartment at the back of her herb shop. Mistletoe Man (Book 9) finds China and her new family living in a big Victorian house on Limekiln Road, west of Pecan Springs.

Another change happens for China in Bloodroot (Book 10), for that’s when she and her mother finally dig into the issues that have kept them apart for many years and begin a healthier and happier mother-daughter relationship. And in Nightshade, the final book of a trilogy (Books 14-16), China finally comes to terms with her dead father (a dominant force in her growing-up years), meets and then loses her half-brother, and gains a daughter, nine-year-old Caitlin.

Other books trace the life and loves of Ruby Wilcox, China’s best friend and partner, and the many changes in their business. What started as two independent shops morphs into a full-fledged business partnership that includes a tea room, a party and catering business, and a gourmet food service. China’s shop changes physically, too, as her one-time apartment becomes a dining room and kitchen, and the loft (in the upcoming 2018 book, Queen Anne’s Lace, becomes a weaving studio. And of course there are the gardens around the shop, and the cottage (now a bed-and-breakfast) at the back.

Other important characters appear as well, each of whom has his or her own character arc: Mike McQuaid, China’s husband, first a cop, now a college professor and private investigator; Sheila Dawson, the first female chief of Pecan Springs police; and Blackie Blackstone, the county sheriff who becomes McQuaid’s partner in a PI firm; and of course Brian and Caitie, China’s kids, growing with each book.

I love mysteries, and a strong central whodunit will always serve as the plot that moves the story from beginning to end. But for me, the people who live in the little town of Pecan Springs (halfway between Austin and San Antonio, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country) will always be at the heart of each book. They are just as real and interesting as my neighbors and friends, and I know from your letters and emails that you see them that way, too.

So I hope you enjoy The Last Chance Olive Ranch as it takes China and Ruby into some interesting new territory, challenges McQuaid to settle some old and painful scores, and reveals that Brian is opening a new and surprising chapter in his life.

It’s never “business as usual” in Pecan Springs. And I for one am delighted that after 25 years, there are new things to learn about our very dear friends.