|Susan Wittig Albert: Indigo Dying|
Books (Hardcover), ISBN 0425188280
Her China Bayles mystery series, featuring a popular Texan herbalist sleuth, gathers strength from the author's other life as a magazine feature writer and expert on all things herbal. Her herbal zodiac column, a monthly staple of Herb Companion magazine, predicts gardening by the signs. She lists the best time to clean up the garden -- "waning Fourth Quarter days (all under the signs of Aries, Taurus and Gemini)" and plant chives during the "Second-Quarter Scorpio Moon."
Her article in defense of Nicholas Culpepper converted me into a disciple of this much-maligned herbalist (June/July issue Herb Companion, p. 35). The article not only clears misconceptions about his contribution to herbal medicine, it demonstrates Albert's meticulous research and ability to view topics from several angles.
In her latest mystery novel, Albert teams herbalist China Bayles with a long-lost college friend, Allie Selby. Allie, one of the last 27 hardy souls residing in a dying (as in defunct) town, Indigo, Texas, recruits China to rent a booth at an arts and crafts festival. Proceeds from the festival and a premiere performance of a play written by Allie's boyfriend will fund the town's rebirth as an artist's Mecca. Just before the festival, Allie's mean-as-dirt Uncle Casey, who apparently inherited the town, announces his plans to raze the buildings and sell the land for strip mining.
Bad news stacks up. Allie and her live-in boyfriend dance the break-up dance, whirling faster toward a final split after his apparent newest love interest arrives in town. Just when it couldn't get any worse, a man steps into a shotgun blast in true Texas fashion and dies spread-eagle in the street. His death disrupts the arts and crafts festival. China's hunky husband steps up to help the rookie sheriff solve the murder, but not before someone else buys it.
Albert stirs up arguments about environmental atrocities while sprinkling herbal lore from goldenrod to woad. And her recipes for cooking with herbs add a tasty bonus. She continues the family relationships and step-parenting thread from previous series installments and takes her characters into the next chapter of their shared lives.
Sometimes I feel the author struggling to fit the square herbal details into a round whodunit. I'd like to see a closer alignment of the two. Maybe China will start writing an herbal zodiac column in the next book and throw in a much maligned herbalist who saves natural medicines for the world. She could title it "Herbal Companion" and give free magazine subscriptions with each book purchase.
Or, she could just stick with her successful formula and continue writing Texas mysteries with an herbal twist.
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