by Sharon Tucker
What’s not to love about herbs? Cooking channels program us to always have herbs on hand (fresh ones at that), so many of us spend a fortune at Kroger, or plant seeds to grow our own. I always cross my fingers after planting, not only hoping my seeds will sprout, but that our neighborhood squirrels don’t harvest them before I can get a share. To encourage the would-be gardener in you, the not-so-cozy world of Susan Wittig Albert’s herbalist, China Bayles, guarantees a good read for any time of year, but in the spring her world is especially attractive.
Wittig’s writing style is straightforward and uncluttered, as much becomes her down-to-earth heroine, who calmly sets to right the tangles her friends and acquaintances keep falling into novel after novel.
For those of you who don’t know her as the series begins, China Bayles has concluded that there must be more to life than working fourteen+ hour days as a criminal attorney and stumbling back exhausted to a beautiful, expensive apartment she seldom ever sees. She wants a quieter, gentler life–correction–she wants “a life.” So this “fast laner” resigns from her Houston law firm, cashes in her retirement fund and fulfills a dream: purchasing Thyme and Seasons, an herb shop in the West Texas resort town of Pecan Springs. Bayles flourishes happily in this new world. Of course, her “criminal” past intrudes into life in Pecan Springs, but how her past and present collide and who she collides with make a good read.
First in the series, Thyme of Death opens with Bayles in a self-congratulatory mood. She is settling beautifully into the yearly cycles of planting, harvesting, and selling herbs. Pecan Springs is as lovely as she had hoped. She is in a close, non-adversarial relationship with a former Houston policeman and current criminal justice professor, Mike McQuiad. She has made a good friend in New Age shop owner, Ruby Wilcox with whom she shares building space. But into her new life intrudes the suicide of an old friend–or is it murder? The skills that made Bayles a successful criminal attorney have not been lost along the way and serve her well as she keeps Kinsey Milhone-wannabe, Wilcox from getting them both killed.
In Witches Bane, next in the series, we see that Pecan Springs is not quite as enlightened a community as new-ager Ruby Wilcox and herbalist Bayles had hoped, when rumors of their involvement in devil worship and witchcraft roil through the area. Wilcox’s New Age shop and familiarity with everything from Tarot cards to Santeria makes her suspect, according to the more conservative in their community and Bayles is guilty by association. That a prominent community member is murdered shortly after they throw an all-female Halloween party just ups the ante. A fundamentalist pastor and his acolytes arrive shortly thereafter to kick up an already dangerous brew that threatens to swamp their businesses and put their lives at risk.
The Annual Heart of Texas Booster Club Rattlesnake Sacking Championship kicks off Bayles’s next foray, Hangman’s Root. Animal rights figure prominently in this third novel when a controversial animal-friendly biology professor Dottie Riddle is accused of murdering a colleague whose research is founded on animal experimentation. Circumstantial evidence lands Riddle in jail, so it’s fortuitous that Bayles has remained an attorney in good standing–her skills and investigative knowledge may be the only chance her accused friend has.
So, finally it’s spring. The plaguey winter of 2014 is receding into memory and most of the country can plant seeds on Good Friday (April 18th). I always find that reading a China Bayles novel inspires me to plant something new every season and to try medicinal herbs as well as culinary. When you pick one up and read the introductory pages, it may sadden you to learn that the lovely town of Pecan Springs is not on any Texas map–it did me.
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