I considered reading the official choice, but decided instead to make the club a reason to buy another volume of the China Bayles series, by Susan Wittig Albert. China's adventures as a lawyer-turned-shop owner are fun to read no matter where you live, but since both she and her creator dwell in Central Texas, for me the local angle is irresistible!
The book I bought is called Thyme of Death - the first China Bayles book, which began the series in 1992. Shortly after we moved here I was introduced to China with a book belonging to the middle of the series so I thought it would be interesting to see how we first meet China Bayles. Susan Albert introduces China as a fully-formed character, with her personality and beliefs evident right from the beginning. I do think that a couple of the other characters seem slightly stereotypical in this first book. China and her friend Ruby lose a terminally ill friend to what looks like suicide, but may actually be murder. We find out a lot about everyone in town as the story unfolds. Thyme of Death was nominated for both Agatha and Edgar awards - the plotting is pretty good, the conversations engrossing, and the details of life in the town of Pecan Springs make the start to the series special.
In real life, Albert's fans have been heartbroken to discover that they can't actually go to China's Thyme and Seasons Herb Shop with it's adjacent garden full of fragrant herbs. Alas! Pecan Springs is not a real town, although after reading one book, you may sympathize with those confused fans and wish that you could visit China's shop, too. There is a genuine sense of place in these mysteries - the town may be fictional, but the geography, biology, botany, genealogy, and meteorology are real. The medical and forensic details of the murders seem well researched, and with a Texas lawyer as the main character, there are opportunities to explore how local laws work, along with some comments on political events. Each book has a relevant plant or herb in the title, and many of the later ones have a recipe or two, including these two favorites.
Susan Wittig Albert is also the author of another mystery series called the Cottage Tales, with Beatrix Potter as the mystery solving protaganist. We recently rented the recent movie Miss Potter, and enjoyed it very much. I don't require a film biography to be all that accurate - it's a movie! But once the credits have rolled, I want some facts about the real person. I read Susan's review of the movie and found out that most parts of this Beatrix Potter bio-flick were factual, but some scenes were pure fiction, and that timeframes were shifted for dramatic reasons. Now I'd like to read some of the Cottage Tale series, to see how Susan imagines Beatrix - and to guess what kind of actress should be calling her agent and optioning the book!
Susan Albert not only tells a good yarn and spins a fine mystery - she also spins, dyes, weaves and knits real yarn. And she's even a blogger, writing about her Hill Country home and garden, wildlife, and fabric arts at Lifescapes and appears on local PBS, visiting with Tom Spencer at the Central Texas Gardener.
Knowing something about the author is fun, but you can enjoy China Bayles without any backstory - just open the book and head down the path to Pecan Springs.
Added Oct 1st: Carol has links to the other reviews at her Virtual Book Club meeting.