A Guest Blog Post
By Susan Wittig Albert
This year marks the publication of the 24th China Bayles mystery, Blood Orange. Gosh—it seems like yesterday when the first book, Thyme of Death, came out. But that was way back in 1992, the same year that Bill Clinton became president, Hurricane Andrew bulldozed across South Florida, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven cleaned up at the Oscars. To tell the truth, I never imagined that China and Ruby would be still be sleuthing, 24 books later. But I’m glad they are, for they’ve given me, as their partner-in-crime, many wonderful (and challenging) hours of writing fun.
Back in the day, those early China Bayles mysteries broke some new ground. For one thing, regional mysteries were fairly new to readers, and I was a little worried that a small town in the Texas Hill Country might not be appealing. What’s more, China was a shop owner, an herbalist, and a gardener, the first of her kind in the U.S. (British mystery author John Sherwood had already written several books in his Celia Grant horticultural series but there were none in America.) China’s mysteries were also among the first to feature recipes (Diane Mott Davidson began doing this at about the same time). And China Bayles herself was the first ex-lawyer (a criminal attorney) coupled with an ex-cop boyfriend/husband.
To my mind, it was China’s background as a lawyer that made her different from other female amateur sleuths—and still does. She’s had experience with lots of different bad guys, which gives her an eye for criminals and a pretty strong sense of who isn’t telling the truth. She knows the law and is trained to spot the ways people—both bad guys and good—use the legal system to their advantage. Her relationship with Mike McQuaid has given her an insight into the way cops and professional investigators think and work, and her friendship with Sheila Dawson, Pecan Springs’ first female chief of police, provides a strong connection to local law enforcement. On the other hand, her longtime friendship with highly-intuitive slightly-wacky Ruby Wilcox gives her a different view of what’s going on.
All these elements stir up a rich stew of plot possibilities for every China Bayles adventure, and Blood Orange is no exception. I had fun playing with the possibilities of blood oranges for food and drink—and the unexpected discovery that blood oranges are used in artisanal beer gave me a clue to an important plot thread. But it’s China’s background as a lawyer that makes the Blood Orange plot so complex. When she unearths some fraudulent doings in the local hospice, her legal experience helps her find a murder that has been buried so deep that even the cops can’t find it.
But even though China is very smart and experienced, it’s often Ruby who gets her out of a really tight situation. I had a lot of fun writing the scene near the end of the book where China gets locked in the villain’s garage and Ruby—
But I don’t want to spoil your fun, so I’ll just invite you to pour a cup of tea, grab a handful of your favorite cookies (maybe Ruby’s Hot Lips Cookie Crisps), and settle in with Blood Orange. It has all the elements that make China Bayles a true Texas original: an amateur sleuth with a green thumb and a serious nose for prime-thyme crime. I hope you enjoy it!
Susan Wittig Albert is the New York Times bestselling author of four Prime Crime series: China Bayles, The Darling Dahlias, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and (with her husband, Bill Albert) the Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries. She also writes historical fiction. Recent titles: Loving Eleanor and A Wilder Rose. Her website: www.susanalbert.com