The fantasy of killing off colleagues runs rampant in academia – hence the vast array of mysteries set on college campuses from Princeton or Harvard to the imaginary Balaclava State Agricultural College (featured in books authored by Charlotte MacLeod, aka Alisa Craig) and small liberal arts colleges scattered across the real or imaginary landscape of higher education. But not all academics that imagine murder locate it on campus. Susan Wittig Albert, for example, is both a former English professor and former university administrator and vice president who has chosen another setting (though there is an occasional academic reference). Albert writes two series, one featuring Beatrix Potter and the other featuring China Bayles. A third set of mysteries co-authored with her husband Bill appears under the pseudonym Robin Paige. Unlike Mickey Spillane and Robert Ludlum (Okay, I am on a binge supported by a bookcase full of books down the hall and a purchase here and there), Albert’s series involve food. In the past week or so, I have read The Tale of Holy How (a Beatrix Potter mystery) and Dead Man’s Bones (featuring China Bayles). Maybe food and murder mysteries are the answers to academia’s politics. Bayles’ boyfriend who eventually becomes her husband, McQuaid, does some teaching and even founded a new program in criminal justice at the local college. This book has a minor academic theme in it – involving resume checking. (How many times have you wanted to investigate your colleagues to find out if they really got that degree? I wonder why industry often does this – and much of higher education checks criminal records when using search firms – but few of us bother for faculty? Hmmmm.)
I encountered the China Bayles series first, which features herbal lore of various sorts and recipes as well. The character Bayles is a former lawyer and current owner of an herb shop and, with a new age-y friend named Ruby, a teashop in a Texas town named Pecan Springs. By this most recent book, the friends also have a catering service (a sign of the need to diversify in response to a lukewarm economy?). From indigo and other vegetable dyes to this book’s focus on herbs and foods aimed at strengthening bones (attention all you 50-ish women – here’s– something to focus on), Albert both titles her books in ways that flag her herbal knowledge and uses little snippets for epigrams at the start of chapters. This one ends with recipes for a herbal doggy shampoo, some hot chutney, grilled goat, curried chicken, and a soup which includes all sorts of veggies that are good for your bones. A few select snippets from this one:
Another herb that is often recommended for the prevention of osteoporosis is red clover (Trifolium pratense). In a recent study published in the journal Menopause, it was reported that isoflavone extracts of this phytoestrogenic herb significantly increased bone mineral density, as well as raising the HDL cholesterol level (“good” cholesterol). Herbalgram Number 56, Fall, 2002. (Page 153 of Dead Man’s Bones)
Every American schoolchild learns that the Pilgrims’ ship was the Mayflower. But few, if any, know that the name refers to hawthorn, a tree known for centuries as a heart tonic and are today widely used in Europe as a treatment for heart disease. (Michael Castleman, The Healing Herbs) (Page 215, Dead Man’s Bones.)
I am new to the Beatrix Potter series. Of course, we ALL know about Peter Rabbit, though I cannot remember ever reading his famous tale or any of her other stories. In addition to Beatrix Potter herself, Albert’s mysteries feature a variety of animals as well. Some of the people – and reputedly some of the animals – are historical figures while others are products of Albert’s lively imagination. Here, for example, a guinea pig is historical while badgers, rabbits, sheep and others are not, though they populate and enliven Albert’s world. Food is less directly relevant here, though the book ended with a series of recipes for foods mentioned in the story. Thus, for example, a recipe at the end of the book from Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery (an 18th century recipe book) appears in the novel itself as a dish prepared by the cook in the Brockery, a badger-run hostel. (For a bit on Mrs. Beeton, click here or, for updated versions of her recipes, here. )
As mysteries, I prefer the China Bayles series. Here, too, the relevance of the herbal lore and food-related epigraphs is sometimes more and sometimes less directly relevant. And, like Diane Mott Davidson’s books, adolescent males seem caricatured in their love for tarantulas and lizards. . . . But, for whiling away a day, procrastination or soothing one’s heart in the face of difficult matters, Albert’s books are light and easy. And this even if your bones aren’t aching.
And you, are you an academic who dreams of murder? An herbalist with recommendations? A Potter fan that knows that Harry is not the only famous Potter? A badger with a B&B?