Wednesday, February 25, 2015

China Bayles, former Criminal Lawyer, now herbalist/amateur sleuth!

Thyme of Death by Susan Wittig Albert

This was the February 2015 read for our Borders Book Club!
And it was unanimous among the four members participating--
we all really liked it or loved it!
This book was nominated for both an Agatha and an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery!
Honestly, I think it should have won, for so many reasons!

Each of our book club members was really impressed with China's skill at analyzing and evaluating the evidence as she investigated...well, really, she was the first upon the various scenes of death except one! So whether she wanted to know the murderer's identity or not, it was probably the smart thing to do since she was somewhat implicated as the murderer...When asked why she left the practice of law to become an herbalist, China's stock answer is "plants don't argue"! (Very true!) She continues, 

     "They also don't lie, cheat, connive, or hit below the belt. ... I left 
     the law because I stopped believing in the partnership between 
     justice and the legal system. I also left because the practice of law 
     was changing me into somebody I didn't like very much, somebody more arrogant, 
     more competitive, more cutthroat than I knew myself to be. If I stayed in much longer, I 
     knew what I'd become--a carbon copy of the senior partners in our firm, four men who 
     lived for their work, whose lives were empty of anything else." (page 8)

I can certainly understand her need to switch career paths! Why herbs?

     "...because when I was a kid I was crazy about growing things. It was a trait I inherited 
     from my father's mother, who had what was probably the finest herb garden in New 
     Orleans parish. I inherited Gran's name, too. China Bayles." (page 8)

And in comparing these two jobs:

        It gives me a lift to see cellophane packages of Thyme and Seasons basil and rosemary and marjoram displayed in [the] produce section, along with some little ceramic pots of chives I'd sold them a couple of weeks ago. I feel every bit as proud of those chives as I ever felt about a well-done legal brief. I haven't figured out whether that judgment represents an overvaluation of my chives or an undervaluation of my briefs. (page 186)

Albert's sense of humor comes through in this book and makes it an even more enjoyable read. 

How nice that China and Ruby were able to "cover" for each other's business since they were next door to each other, so neither one 

     "is irrevocably tied to her shop. Even if you love what you're doing, some days a one-
     person business feels like a one-ton albatross." (page 10)

Yes, it can... I think too often people go into business for themselves thinking they'll never again NOT want to go into work. But it does happen, hopefully not as often or as intensely as when you're working for "the man"!

Jo, one of China's very closest friends in Pecan Springs is dealing with cancer,  

        "My connection to my own mother is strained, to put it mildly, and Jo filled an empty 
     place in my life." (page 19)

Jo truly took China under her wing when she first moved to Pecan Springs. In so many ways she was the motherly figure in China's life that she'd not had before. I could relate to the thoughts China had immediately after Jo's death about how she thought she'd have so much longer to say her goodbyes, etc. So many times that is how it seems.

China and I share similar relationships with our mothers, although mine was not an alcoholic as hers was. In reviewing Jo's lack of a close relationship with her own daughter, China muses, 

        I wonder whether any of us really knew our mothers, yet whether we could ever be 
     successful in knowing ourselves apart from them. (page 27)

As I become older than "middle-aged" I often feel a bit sad to think none of my three sons really understand who I am in so many ways. Though I wonder if it is possible for our children to know us as our closest friends do... However, it is so sad to realize the true reason Jo shut Meredith (her daughter) our of her life--I believe she may well have underestimated Meredith's ability to accept and appreciate her regardless... Though as China comments to Jo,

        "Maybe she thought you wouldn't approve. Maybe she wanted to protect you. Maybe 
     she wanted you to keep loving her." I stopped, struck by a disconcerting thought. Until I 
     was fifteen or sixteen, Leatha tried to cover up her drinking, keep it a secret from me. I'd 
     thought she hid it because she was ashamed of seeming weak beside my father's 
     towering strength. But maybe my mother, like Jo, had wanted to protect her daughter, 
     wanted her to keep loving her. I slid uneasily away from the thought. I'd built up a 
     reserve of energizing, sustaining anger against Leatha. It was useful. I wanted to hold 
     on to it. (page 148)

I could have written that paragraph, my own feelings toward my mother were so aptly described in those last three sentences! In the aftermath of her death, it is taking years for me to release the negativity and judgement those statements describe. 

Although China and Ruby are best friends, they are very different people in many ways. China is pragmatic and practical and Ruby tends to be a "free thinker" into "New Age alternative therapies"--she had Jo on the "Healing Path"! (In my opinion Ruby is simply a "hippie"!) They complement each other to create an effective team, particularly for investigations. We were all rather surprised at how Jo actually died in the end...It was certainly not what we expected!

In the course of the story, I'm certain I suspected each character of being the murderer at least two different times! (Except for China and Ruby, of course!) Albert masterfully weaves many false leads into the story, while retaining the cohesiveness and flow of the prose. There is a car chase, and a greedy murderer is caught! We all agreed that Albert deserved many kudos for making a lesbian relationship so prominent in this book which was published as long ago as 1992; it added more depth and resonance overall. 

A solid not-so-easily-solved mystery, concise storytelling, and this first book introduces the main (and I assume recurring-throughout-the-series) characters in a way that makes me want to know more about them. There are currently 22 books in this series, and yes...I do intend to read them all. Albert is one of my favorite writers! Pick one up!

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