People often ask me about the titles in the China Bayles mystery series. Yes, it’s true: all of the book titles are the names (often the common or folklore names) of herbs—which is logical, since China is an herbalist. (If you haven’t yet me her, she owns an herb shop in the Texas Hill Country, in the fictional small town of Pecan Springs, halfway between Austin and San Antonio.)
Some of the signature herbs in the titles are easily recognized: Rosemary Remembered, for instance (the fourth book in the series), or Lavender Lies (#8), or even A Dilly of a Death (#12). But some of the signature herbs are unfamiliar: for example, Widow’s Tears (#21) and especially Death Come Quickly, #22, the latest paperback release.
The herb Death Come Quickly has several names. Its proper Latin name is Geranium robertianum, but it is also known as Herb Robert, Death Come Quickly, Stinky Bob, and Cranesbill. In European folk medicine, the plant was used as a remedy for nosebleeds and toothache. The unpleasant odor of freshly picked, crushed leaves is said to repel mosquitoes (hence Stinky Bob). The flower buds were thought to resemble a stork’s bill, and this association suggested that the plant might enhance fertility. Outdoors, the plant was said to bring good luck, but if you took it indoors, death was sure to follow. The association with death was enhanced by the name Robert, a folk name for a devilish sprite who liked to cause trouble for people. In many ways, Death Come Quickly is an intriguing plant.
As a writer, I like to begin with an intriguing title, and Death Come Quickly seemed like a natural. I often use a book’s title as a writing prompt. That is, I choose the title for its intriguing connotations and let the title lead me on a path of discovery through the story, learning as I go. If I do my job right, when you read the story, the whole thing feels fairly inevitable and “finished.” But the process of writing is for me a discovery process, and the signature herb is the first clue I follow in that process.
What elements of Death Come Quickly were suggested by the signature herb? Well, for one thing, there’s Sheila’s story, which involves a pregnancy. For another, there is the ominous connection with death, and the association of the plant with other “herbs of ill omen.” I took that as a theme for the book, as you’ll see in many of the chapter headnotes.
But lots of other elements get stirred into the mix when I’m writing a mystery. While I was thinking about Death Come Quickly, I happened to be reading about art forgeries and art thefts, which led to the central story, the theft of a (fictional) painting by a (real) Mexican artist, María Izquierdo. This enabled me to tie in the signature herb via the title of a painting. From Chapter Six:
The painting occupied a wall by itself, at the foot of a curving stair. It was dark and moody, with the look of an allegorical narrative: a nude woman, gaunt and angular with long, dark hair framing her face, and dark eyes and a theatrical red mouth. She was staring into a mirror that offered no reflection, only a sinister blackness. Against her breast, she was holding a vivid pink five-petaled flower with fern-like green leaves veined and tipped in red blood, dripping blood onto her flesh. The plant was Herb Robert, Death Come Quickly. And that was the title of the painting: Muerte llega pronto.
But is the picture on the wall the real painting, or is it a copy, a forgery. For me, art forgery raises some fascinating and challenging questions. What’s real? What’s fake? How can we tell the difference? And perhaps most interesting of all, especially in these days when so many works are copied and replicated over the Internet and via other media: Why do we care?
Of course, as in almost every China Bayles book, there are recipes with plenty of herbs, themed to events and characters: China’s Purslane and Spinach Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette; Cass’s Shrimp, Pasta and Rose Petals; McQuaid’s Secret Barbeque Sauce; and more.
If the mystery doesn’t entirely satisfy your inner search for answers (no good mystery ever does, does it?), the recipes are guaranteed to lead you to a tasty conclusion.
About the author:
NYT bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert has written mysteries in four series: the China Bayles series; the Darling Dahlias; the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter; and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. She is the author of A Wilder Rose, the true story of the writing of the Little House books, two memoirs, and other works for adults and young readers. Visit her website: www.susanalbert.com