|Susan Wittig Albert has written more than 100 books, including the popular China Bayles mystery series.|
September 12, 2011
I love a good novel, especially one with interesting characters, a captivating story line and the ability to teach me something new about topics I hold dear. That's why I'm a fan of the plant-themed China Bayles Mystery Series by Texas Hill Country author Susan Wittig Albert.
In each of the series' 18 novels, main character China Bayles (big-city lawyer turned small-town herb-shop owner) solves murders through a combination of botanical know-how, deductive skills and legal reasoning. Each novel expands my plant knowledge while providing a welcome and entertaining literary escape.
I don't like slasher stories, psychological thrillers or books that frighten or give me nightmares. Neither do I abide by unnecessarily sad or uncertain endings. None of that happens in a China Bayles mystery. When I open the pages to one of Albert's books, I am guaranteed a good time. I enter a world I can relate to — a small town inhabited by a quirky but lovable cast of characters who struggle to overcome common, everyday problems. Albert's stories end happily, a feature I covet in both books and movies.
Although each of the series' 18 mysteries is an independent read, the stories always begin in the fictional Texas Hill Country town of Pecan Springs, where the lives of the main characters progress from one book to the next. That makes each installment like a visit with old friends. With a turn of the page, I "catch up" with a cast of imaginary people who have come to feel like they're almost real.
Front and center is the proprietor of the Thyme and Season Herb Shop, China Bayles, and Bayles' best friend, business partner and mystery-solving sidekick Ruby Wilcox. She's a New Age maven with a propensity for right-brain thinking that contrasts nicely with Bayles' more left-brained, practical approach.
Bayles' love interest, Mike McQuaid, is a former detective who, following a work-related injury, trades his badge for stints as a private investigator and university educator. Other recurring characters include McQuaid's son, Wilcox's daughter, various local business owners and relatives and friends of the main characters. The entire package is sprinkled with humor and includes satisfyingly unpredictable endings.
Albert published her first China Bayles novel, "Thyme of Death," in 1992. It must have been around that time when I chanced upon it on the shelves of my local library. I quickly devoured that book and have been gobbling up new installments ever since. Fortunately, Albert has written more than 100 titles under her own name and various pen names. With the exception of 2002, there has been a new China Bayles novel annually. The most recent release, "Holly Blues," came out in 2010. I'm never left hungry for long.
In addition to each story's underlying botanical theme, every chapter is anchored by herbal quotes, proverbs, plant-related recipes and gardening folklore. In "Indigo Dying" (2003), I read about the different cloth-coloring properties and histories of various plants, along with recipes for herb quiche and frijoles de olla (beans in a pot).
In "Rosemary Remembered" (1995), the folk saying that headed Chapter 12 — "To learn humility, one must weed the Thymes" — struck me as particularly relevant. At the end of each novel, a list of pertinent resources provides motivated readers with ways to continue learning about plants mentioned in the stories.
One of the few things I enjoy more than getting lost in a book is learning more about one of my favorite subjects. With Albert's help, I'm able to broaden my botanical knowledge in a memorably entertaining way.