April 22, 2009

Book: Susan Wittig Albert serves up cozy herbal mysteries

A fictional Shaker village and its modern re-creation have some uncomfortable commonalities in a new mystery by Susan Wittig Albert. “Wormwood” is Albert’s 17th entry in a series of “cozy” (i.e., gentle and character-driven) mysteries that center around China Bayles, a lady running an herb shop in Texas. That’s a lot of mystery books, and therefore murders, to be happening within the orbit of an herbologist. Albert has adapted by imaginatively extending Bayles’s family and taking her into clever scenarios where crime is a likelihood and mayhem a possibility.

Her latest example? Creating the setting of Mount Zion Shaker Village in northern Kentucky. When Bayles comes to call, it is a historical foundation with re-enactors and a board constantly concerned with tourist traffic and an annual budget. But our author digs deep, using research from the real Pleasant Hill (in Harrodsburg) and other Shaker settlements to summon the community tension that must have affected many among them. Shaker ideals like simple hard work, plain accommodations and strictly platonic love among members were almost always under siege, both from within (temptation) and from “the World.”

Several “Wormwood” chapters are fictional journal entries, recounting Mount Zion’s troubled year of 1912. These writings may hold clues to financial misdeeds — and worse — in the modern museum village. This novel reads with joyful ease, as befits a masterful veteran author of series mystery. She might go on a bit about Bayles’s convoluted family — but a loyal fanbase would prefer to know the latest about everyone, as if they were their own kin. These readers also would revolt if there weren’t a few herb-centered recipes mentioned during the novel and spelled out at the end.

Albert is coming to the Barnes & Noble on Hurstbourne Saturday as part of a tour that takes her to herb shops as well as bookstores. We recently exchanged e-mails.

 

LEO: The recipe collection: Do you get many coming in from fans?

Susan Wittig Albert: Readers sometimes send recipes — but more often, they send inquiries, wondering which book had the recipe for such-and-such (they’ve forgotten, or loaned out the book). The favorite (judging from the number of e-mails I get) is for “Ruby Wilcox’s Hot Lips Cookie Crisps,” a habanera-flavored cookie (mucho hot!) that appeared in the book “Love Lies Bleeding.” I test all the recipes.

 

LEO: Can you see yourself living as a Shaker today?

SWA: Not really — although I do enjoy retreats to a silent monastic community here in Texas.

 

LEO: Herbology: How has its acceptance and place in American culture changed since you started writing about China?

SWA: The interest has shifted from a casual interest in culinary herbs and herbs-for-crafting (wreaths, perfumery, soaps, etc.) to an intense and very practical interest in medicinal plants. There is currently much more funding for research into traditional botanical medicines, with the aim of discovering plant chemicals that may help fight important diseases. Also, there’s a wider interest in “green living” more generally: in gardening, eating locally, living healthfully, getting away from toxic chemicals.

 

LEO: Electronic books and online bookstores are overtaking brick-and-mortar stores while fiction readership in general has decreased. Do you think that the mysteries you write will adapt well to these changes?

SWA: All my fiction work is available in e-book format and doing quite well, so from that perspective, the text has already proven itself adaptable. I must confess that while I love my Kindle, I do have a preference for books with paper pages, especially when the book is a keeper that I’m willing to find shelf-room for.

Many people read my fiction because of its informational content [e.g., plant information in the China Bayles series]. Readers who want to learn while they’re being entertained will stick with these books, I think, when they’re tired of lighter, “mind candy” stuff.

 

Author Susan Wittig Albert
Saturday, April 25
Barnes & Noble
801 S. Hurstbourne
Free; 2 p.m.