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Escapist Fiction by Susan Wittig Albert.
Thyme of Death, 1992. ISBN 0-68419522-4. 260 pp. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Witches' Bane, 1993. ISBN 0-68419636-0. 273 pp. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Hangman's Root, 1994. ISBN 0-684129677-8. 245 pp. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Rosemary Remembered, 1995. ISBN 0-425-14937-4. 296 pp. Berkeley Prime Crime Book.

China Bayles is "a snappy lawyer who gave up high-speed corporate life to run her own herb shop in the small Texas town of Pecan Springs," according to the publisher's press releases for the books. The focus of these novels by Texas writer Susan Wittig Albert concerns an "ordinary" citizen involved in stories which include all the prerequisites of good mysteries -- greed, murder, and blackmail.

The day-to-day running of Bayles's Thyme and Season Herb Company, the appearance of a variety of characters from her past and present life, her participation in the local town activities, and regional herbal events make an interesting background for the mysteries. Add to the mix Bayles's significant other, former cop-turned-professor Mike McQuaid, and her friend Ruby, and all the ingredients are in place to provide the material for an enjoyable evening or two in escapist pursuits. Pertinent references to the use of herbal remedies abound, adding a welcome addition to the plot without being intrusive. Albert knows whereof she writes, for she raises and uses herbs and publishes an herbal newsletter, China's Garden. In Thyme of Death Bayles mentions the Ebers Papyrus, (Egypt, ca 1500 B.C.) referring to it as the world's oldest surviving medical text and citing the twenty-two remedies using garlic. Thyme was nominated for the Agatha and Anthony mystery awards.

In the second volume Witches' Bane, when a customer decides to plant a "poison garden" as her entry in a local garden show, Bayles discusses wolf bane (Aconitum napellus) and sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard's suggested antidote. She expounds in an interesting fashion on the toxicity of ordinary garden plants (belladonna, delphinium, oleander, mountain laurel, mistletoe, castor plants, Jimson weed, foxglove, lantana) with enough scientific expertise to be credible without being overly pedantic -- just a couple of friends discussing plants over coffee and peach pie.

Albert writes with a sly wit; her description of a local resident, for example, brought more than one chuckle. "She's short and round, her tight brown curls courtesy of Bobby Rae's House of Beauty, where perms are half price on Wednesdays. Squeezed into a bright orange-and-yellow checked pantsuit, she looked like a plastic pot scrubber."

The plot of Hangman's Root stems from the rivalry and feud between an animal rights group and two members of the biology department at a local university. This affords a discussion of catnip and its qualities and horticulture. Other references to events and organizations familiar to HerbalGram readers are sprinkled throughout. For example, Bayles describes the alkaloid capsaicin (the publisher thoughtfully includes a parenthetical diagram of the proper pronunciation) in the context of her reference to a friend who is presenting a paper on capsicums at the Society of Ethnobiology at the Smithsonian Institution. Bayles's relationship with McQuaid has reached a crossroads and the necessity for making an oft-postponed decision adds just the right amount of tension to the story.

Rosemary Remembered, the most recent in the China Bayles series, retains the verve and wit of the first three, something sadly lacking in the work of many writers on the "produce-or-else" publishing track. Since I live cheek-by-jowl to the Texas Hill Country described in the Bayles books, the descriptions of spring wildflowers, tips on planting and using native species, the topography, and the references to local watering spots and recreational areas touch my sense of the familiar and add to the general enjoyment of her adventures.

Albert is generous with her acknowledgements to medieval and modern herbal writers and authorities, often listing books on herbal cultivation, preparing, and cooking. If you want a break from the more serious aspects of ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, or pharmacology but still wish to stay in touch with that universe, this series is worth the recreational time spent.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Barbara Johnston