In “Cat’s Paw” (Berkley Prime Crime; $24.95), the 20th novel in the China Bayles mystery series, author Susan Wittig Albert has Bayles share the spotlight with Sheila Dawson, police chief of Pecan Springs, Texas. In previous novels, Albert wrote the story completely from Bayles’s point of view. In alternate chapters here, readers also get a glimpse into the life of a female police chief with a myriad of political and professional conflicts to resolve as she works to clear up a murder that has the town talking.
Larry Kirk, who manages Bayles’s company, Thyme and Seasons, and website asked Bayles if he needed a lawyer to deal with a stalker. Bayles, who was a practicing criminal lawyer in Houston before she gave it up to become a herbalist and run several businesses, suggested he should go straight to the police if he seriously were worried. A few hours later, as Bayles was closing the shop, Ruby Wilcox, her business partner and best friend, called to tell her that Wilcox’s sister has just discovered Kirk dead in his kitchen. Bayles advises her to call 911 and not touch anything, just wait there for the police.
Deputy Police Chief Clint Hardin, who never missed a chance to use his height and size to make a point of his irritation with the fact of women on the force, was getting ready to take 10 days leave and go fishing. While there was a touchy case still under investigation, he’d leave it for Dawson to sort out. On the surface, it appears that a related case involving Kirk, a random break-in at his Computer Sales and Service, had seemed minor but the status of the man whose image had been caught on the security camera at the store would lead to the arrest of George Timms for criminal trespass and destruction of property. He was a prominent businessman with friends in high places. According to Timms’s attorney, he was being blackmailed by someone, and the finger pointed at an employee of Kirk’s.
Meanwhile, Dawson spent long hours at her desk, taking care of all the paperwork that was part of her job as chief – filling in forms, memos, notices, and reports – while she would have preferred being out on an investigation – interviewing, following leads, connecting the dots. When the call from dispatch came in to headquarters to report a suicide and the address, Dawson realized it is across the alley from her home.
Dawson decided to take an active part in the investigation, assisting Detective Bartlett rather than taking the lead, herself. As she investigates, she is certain this is murder rather than suicide. She knows how Kirk hated guns and would not have one. She also knows he was left-handed, but the bullet hole is on the right side of his head. Obviously the murderer did not know Kirk well, ruling out his ex-wife. Could Timms be involved in any way?
The narrative swings back and forth from chapter to chapter with Dawson and her team using police procedure to dig into the many murky aspects of blackmail, another murder, pedophilia and an attempted murder of one of the petty criminals involved. On the other hand, there are Bayles’s contributions to the case as she uses her deductive reasoning, logic and legal training. Several subordinate plots add to the interest, and the twist at the end will surprise the reader.
For those new to the series, this work stands on its own, but readers from over the years may wish that Bayles and Wilcox had more of a presence. Albert has continued her custom of giving several recipes at the back of the book.
Susan Wittig Albert is a former university administrator and professor. She is the author of another series featuring Beatrix Potter. With her husband Bill, she co-wrote a series of Victorian and Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige. They live in the High Country of Texas.