|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Susan Wittig Albert is the NYT best-selling author of over 100 books. Her work includes four mystery series: China Bayles, the Darling Dahlias, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian mysteries. She has published three award-winning historical novels, as well as YA fiction, memoirs, and nonfiction. Susan currently serves as an editor of StoryCircleBookReviews and helps to coordinate SCN's online class program. She and her husband Bill live in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and raises a varying assortment of barnyard creatures.
Date of Birth:1940
Place of Birth:Danville, Illinois
Education:Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
Read an Excerpt
The vanilla vine grew out of a murder — two murders, in fact. That's the story, anyway.
The Totonacs, the first people to cultivate vanilla, lived on the eastern coast of Mexico in what is now the state of Veracruz. Their king had a daughter who (naturally) was so beautiful that she was consecrated to the goddess of fertility. The royal princess made the unfortunate and very human mistake of falling in love with a handsome commoner. Forbidden to marry (naturally), the lovers fled to the forest, where the priests caught up with them and killed them.
From the blood of the murdered lovers grew a tall, strong tree, embraced by a beautiful orchid vine. When the orchid flowered, the air was filled with an intoxicating aroma. Nine months later, the fruit was ripe. Observant Totonacs drew the natural conclusion.
China Bayles"Vanilla: The Ice Cream Orchid"Pecan Springs Enterprise
Novelist Mary McCarthy once wrote, "We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story." I've given a lot of thought to this, and I think it's true. The trouble is that we never really know when a new chapter of our story begins. Most of the time, in fact, we don't even know it's a story — that is, with a cast of characters, in a setting, with a plot and several subplots — until we're in it up to our necks.
For example, does this story (the one I'm about to tell you) begin with the mythic murder of a princess and her handsome commoner, somewhere in the jungles of Central America? Does it start with a passionate desire for an exotic flower and its delectable fruit? Or perhaps it begins in unspeakable loss, unbearable pain, and a corrosive desire for revenge. The roots of some stories go deep into the past, and I can't be sure what sort of seed was the genesis of this one. I only know how and when I came into it and what happened after that.
So, since I'm not sure where to begin, I'll start with the workshop that Ruby and I taught that fateful Monday in September, which was a kind of beginning.
For me, anyway.
I WAS STANDING IN FRONT of a group of women in the Gathering Room of Thyme Cottage, about to begin a PowerPoint presentation on vanilla, the world's most popular flavoring. I would be talking about how the plant is grown, harvested, cured, and marketed, illustrating my narrative with photographs from a recent field trip I'd taken to Veracruz, Mexico. But I began the workshop by telling the mythic tale of the beautiful Totonac princess who was murdered, with her lover, because of their forbidden love affair.
"And that," I added, "explains why the vanilla orchid likes to wrap itself around a tree — although it might take a little imagination to see the vine as a beautiful princess."
I turned the pot on the table in front of me, so everyone could have a good look at the two-foot vine, which was fastened to a cedar post that I'd wrapped with sphagnum moss. "As you can see, this one is clinging to the cedar support. When it's mature, it will produce a lovely yellow orchid-like flower. If it's successfully pollinated, there'll be a ripe vanilla pod nine months later." A titter fluttered around the room when I added, "No wonder the myth is told as a 'birds-and-bees' story."
I picked up the pot and stepped in front of the table so that the people in our "Not Just Plain Vanilla" workshop could see the plant more easily. "Like other members of the orchid family," I said, "the vanilla orchid has aerial roots that cling to its support, help it grow upward, and take in water and nutrients. It also sends roots down into the soil. In its native tropical habitat, this vine can grow to two hundred feet. In a greenhouse, it'll probably top out at fifteen or twenty." I paused. "Questions?"
Mrs. Birkett — the oldest member of our local herb guild and a longtime Crockett Street neighbor — put up her hand. "I've heard vanilla called a spice, but I've never understood that. At the grocery store, it comes as a liquid in that little brown bottle. So why is it a spice?"
"That puzzles a lot of people," I said. "But the answer is pretty simple, really. Herbs and spices come from different parts of a useful plant. Herb refers to the leaves, flowers, or stems. Spice refers to the seed, fruit, root, or bark. Vanilla extract is made from the fruit of the vanilla orchid — its pod, or bean — so we call vanilla a spice."
Mrs. Birkett nodded, satisfied. "Thank you. Now I know."
The woman sitting beside her spoke up. "I'm an ER nurse. I've read that vanilla is used medicinally. Is that right?"
I squinted to see her name tag. Karen Taylor — someone I didn't know. She looked like a nurse, though. Brown hair cut sensibly short, no makeup, simple skirt and blouse, a brisk, no-nonsense manner. I replied, "There's been some laboratory research on vanillin — the active plant chemical in vanilla. It's been shown to reduce free radicals, slow cell mutations, and restrict the blood supply to tumors. So it may be useful in treating some cancers."
"And the scent has a calming effect," my partner Ruby Wilcox added. "Researchers doing mood mapping say that just a whiff of vanilla can make people feel relaxed and happy." There was a general whisper of yesses around the room, and somebody said, "To me, vanilla smells like home. Like my mother. Whenever I smell it, I think of her."
Another hand went up. "How much sun does a vanilla plant need?" The questioner, Edith Barlow, wore her auburn hair in a loose cloud around her shoulders. "Can I grow it in my living room?"
"Good questions, Edith," I said. "You may see vanilla advertised as a house plant, but growing it is tricky. It needs warm temperatures — nothing lower than fifty-five — bright light, and a super-sticky humidity level, around eighty-five percent. Vanilla planifolia — planifolia just means 'flat-leaved'— is a tropical vine that grows best in a greenhouse." I smiled at the auburn-haired woman. "But don't give up hope. If you don't have your very own personal greenhouse, check with Sonora Garden Center. Maggie Walker, the owner, offers an orchid boarding service. She'll be glad to board your vanilla plant, keep it healthy, and give it everything it needs. When it's ready to bloom — when it's three years old and about ten feet tall — you can take it home and enjoy the blossoms. You can even try your hand at pollinating it."
"A boarding service for orchids?" the nurse asked disbelievingly. "You've got to be kidding."
"Nope." I hoisted the pot I was holding. "This little lady is still a baby, just eighteen months old. She lives at Sonora, where Maggie takes good care of her." Conveniently, Maggie and I have arranged a little quid pro quo. She keeps my vanilla plant in exchange for a free ad for Sonora in my email newsletter.
"Maggie really knows her stuff when it comes to orchids," another woman said. Her salt-and-pepper hair was clipped close to her head, and her expression was alert and sprightly. "Boarding is cheaper than having your own greenhouse. A lot less trouble, too, if you're into orchids. They aren't very pretty when they're not blooming, so Maggie takes care of mine until they're ready to bloom again."
"Do you have visiting privileges?" someone asked in a snarky tone, and laughter rippled through the group.
"Absolutely." The gray-haired woman took the question seriously. "I drop in every few weeks to see how my babies are doing. I don't want them to forget me, you know." More laughter.
"Is Maggie boarding a vanilla orchid for you?" I asked.
The woman nodded eagerly. "It's four years old and already about fifteen feet tall. It should bloom in the next few months, and Maggie says she'll show me how to pollinate it."
"Good luck," I said. "If you get any pods, maybe you'd be willing to share." Everybody laughed, and I looked around. "Any more questions?"
When I didn't see any hands in the air, I put the vanilla plant on the table and picked up my laptop's remote. "If you'll turn out the lights, Ruby, we'll be on our way. I took these photos on a trip I made last year with a college botany class that was studying vanilla. We'll be visiting the Mexican town of Papantla, which clings to its history as the vanilla capital of the world. Then it's on to a commercial vanilla plantation and a traditional vanilla farm in the jungle, to see how vanilla is grown, harvested, and cured. At the end, we'll visit a small manufacturer in Veracruz, to see how vanilla extract is produced."
When my talk was finished, Ruby and I would demonstrate some uses for vanilla powder and paste, compare real vanilla extract to the less-expensive artificial vanilla flavoring, and share bowls of vanilla custard and several vanilla-flavored treats. The following week, the group would meet again for some hands-on work with vanilla pods. I would focus on the culinary side of things, while Ruby would demonstrate how to make vanilla-infused body oils, a vanilla sugar facial scrub, and a fragrant incense made from vanilla powder. At the end, we would hand out recipes and tips for storing and using vanilla pods. Everybody loves recipes.
But before I start my PowerPoint photos, a quick introduction may be in order for those who haven't visited us before. My name is China Bayles. Some years ago, I left the practice of criminal law in Houston and opened an herb shop — Thyme and Seasons — in Pecan Springs, Texas, a small, friendly Hill Country community halfway between Austin and San Antonio. A few years later, I married Mike McQuaid, a former homicide detective, currently a private investigator and part-time faculty member in the Criminal Justice department at Central Texas State University. McQuaid and I are parents to two great kids: his son Brian, who is majoring in environmental sciences at the University of Texas at Austin; and my thirteen-year-old niece Caitlin, who plays the violin and runs a small chicken-and-egg business in our backyard.
Ruby Wilcox (the tall redhead standing at the back of the room) owns the Crystal Cave, the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs. The Cave is located in the same building as my herb shop, and Ruby is my partner and best friend. She sells incense and rune stones and tarot cards and books; teaches classes in astrology and meditation and the tarot; and offers birth chart readings and Ouija board sessions. She's also psychic, which occasionally manifests itself in some pretty interesting ways. You might ask her about our recent ghost, who taught us a few things about the century-old building where our shops are located.
Some people may think Ruby is a bit of a flake, but in all the years we've worked together, I have rarely known her to have a bad idea. In fact, I will admit that while I have the stamina and dogged persistence it takes to run a small business, Ruby is the one with the creativity, originality, and imagination it takes to run an innovative small business. You might say that her right brain makes up for what my left brain lacks and vice versa. Which makes us excellent business partners and the very, very, very best of besties.
To look at us, though, you'd have to say that we're an odd couple. Ruby is slender and tall — six feet in her flats — with fair skin, freckles, and remarkable carrot-colored hair that tends to frizz no matter what she does to it. She loves clothes that will make you blink, like the bright purple tunic top and purple-and-blue paisley yoga leggings she was wearing today.
I, on the other hand, am short and stocky, with a widening gray streak in my unremarkable brown hair. My work uniform is invariably jeans, tennies, and a forest green Thyme and Seasons T-shirt. Call me unglamorous, but not having to figure out what to wear every morning gives me time to figure out a few really important things, like how to get a decent breakfast into my husband and daughter, get the dog and cat fed, and get to the shop before the customers do.
But while Ruby and I are admittedly an odd couple, there is nothing odd or offbeat about our partnership. Together, we own and manage Thyme for Tea (a tea room, in the same building as our shops) and Party Thyme (a catering service). With Cass Wilde, we have the Thymely Gourmet, a meals-to-go food delivery service. Cass also manages the tea room kitchen and helps with the catering. In this always-hectic three-ring circus of ours, the three of us consider ourselves lucky if we can keep from dropping too many balls or missing a trapeze or getting bitten by an irritated tiger. Do not for a single moment think that running your own business is a piece of cake.
And there's Thyme Cottage, once a stone stable, now a lovely remodeled cottage on the alley at the back of the gardens that surround the shops. I rent it by the week as a bed-and-breakfast for tourists who visit Pecan Springs. (If you're in the neighborhood and looking for a place to stay, let me know.) When it's not rented, Ruby and I use it for workshops and classes. We like it because it has a kitchen and adjacent large living room that we call the Gathering Room.
And that's where we were holding our September "Not Just Plain Vanilla" workshop, one of the most popular events on our entire class schedule. It never fails to fill, with a waiting list, on the very same day we post it. Everybody loves vanilla.
IT TOOK ABOUT THIRTY MINUTES for me to show the photographs and answer questions about vanilla farming in Mexico. I had taken the photos on a field trip for a class I audited the previous year. It was taught at CTSU — Central Texas State University — by Professor Carl Fairlee, who is known for his studies of Vanilla planifolia. During the winter break, Dr. Fairlee always leads a field trip to the Mexican state of Veracruz so his class can see how vanilla is grown, harvested, and processed. I didn't tell the group that he is also Maggie Walker's ex-husband — my friend Maggie, who owns the garden center we were talking about earlier — but we'll get into that later.
And I didn't mention the most disturbing part of the story. A couple of years before I took the trip, the van Dr. Fairlee was driving had gone off a steep cliff on a narrow mountain road. One of the girls, Shelley, was killed, and two other students were seriously injured. Details were hard to come by, and there was a great deal of confusion about the facts. In one version, Dr. Fairlee swerved off the road to avoid hitting a monkey. In a more dramatic version, the van was fired on by a gang of men intent on robbery and rape. The more times the story got told, the darker and uglier it became. If the Mexican police investigated the crash and determined what actually occurred, their version of the story didn't make it back to campus.
But whatever the murky truth of what happened on that mountain, it was especially sad for Ruby and me. Shelley Harmon, the student who was killed, had worked in our tea room the previous summer, and (with her friend Beth Craig) had rented a little house from Mrs. Birkett, just down the block. Shelley Harmon was lively, energetic, and always cheerful. Our customers missed her. We missed her.
Because the trip had been university-sponsored, CTSU authorities launched what they called a "thorough investigation." Some people wanted to pin the blame on Dr. Fairlee, if only for putting his students into a dangerous situation. But if he was held to be at fault, we never knew, for the results of the investigation were not released. They were kept secret.
A few people questioned this, and there was a persistent rumor that Shelley's mother, who lived out in West Texas somewhere, had hired a lawyer and intended to sue both Dr. Fairlee and CTSU for wrongful death. But the two-year statute of limitations came and went and the talk eventually died down. By the time the next academic year began, the tragedy was all but forgotten, and it was back to business as usual. Except in the tea room, of course, where Ruby and I often spoke about Shelley and wished we could turn the clock back.
When I went on the vanilla class field trip, there were no accidents, bad or otherwise. The weather was wonderful, the Mexican food exceptional, the vanilla farms interesting. The vanilla bandits (if there were any) left us in peace. Everything went as planned, and I came back with a much better understanding of the where, who, and why of vanilla — and more photos than I knew what to do with. I was using quite a few of them in today's workshop.
"And that's what goes into that little brown bottle you buy at the grocery," I said to the group as I turned off the computer and signaled to Ruby to turn on the lights. "As you can see, growing and processing the stuff takes a lot of time and labor. As Señor Aguado says, 'Vanilla is an obsession. To raise it, you must love it.' I think that's true — and it may be more true of vanilla than any other spice or herb." I paused and looked around. "Okay, who has a question?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Plain Vanilla Murder"
Copyright © 2019 Susan Wittig Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Persevero Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I selected A Plain Vanilla Murder from NetGalley because I had read some earlier books in the series. With its interesting tidbits on herbs and spices, it was a series that my mother had especially enjoyed, and she shared her paperbacks with me. The main character and her cop friend are enjoyable strong female characters. This new addition to the series did not disappoint. It's been a few years since I've read the other ones, but nothing ever made me feel left out, although I'm sure many books have come between the last one I read and this new one. The POV switches between China and Cookie, the Sheriff. The dual perspectives give us many angles into the investigation, but without repetition. The mystery itself was complicated and the clues were numerous and diverse. This allowed me to try to put the puzzle together along with the sleuths. As is not unusual, I was a bit ahead of the game, but I still enjoyed watching it unfold. I did catch one point where the investigators seemed to be considering some information new that they had already obtained themselves from another source. It is possible that this relied on a slight nuance of detail, but it did seem like they had forgotten that they had already known something. However, this was not significant enough to seriously distract from the enjoyment of the read. Overall I strongly recommend this book and the entire series to lovers of cozy mysteries. A definite four-star read. I hope to get my hands on more of Albert's work in the future.
I love this series but this book was disappointing. It was a very slow read and couldn’t keep my attention. Snoozer!
The first few pages immediately reeled me in. It is wonderfully written and the scenes come alive. Soon the story became laser-focused on the vanilla plant. The unwavering focus on vanilla for the first 10 percent of the book made it drag a bit for me. I found myself skipping ahead. However, the mystery’s ending made it all worthwhile.
Everything you ever wanted to know about vanilla, orchids and crime solving rolled up into one great adventure. I loved the history sections of vanilla and info on orchids. I know I would kill an orchid probably by just looking at it as the author explained how challenging they are to raise and thrive. The book was hard to put down. Isn't it annoying when you have to work or sleep? I was drawn into this charming hometown with characters that are open minded and refreshing. A very exhausted pregnant police chief who is still very much a pro at what she does despite her need for numerous bathroom breaks works along with China Bayles whose life now center around her thriving business and family. Murder, smugglers and kidnappers keep China on her toes and the reader turning the pages to race to the end. I highly recommend this book and look forward to another visit with China and her engaging friends. Posted to Goodreads and will post on KOBO, Amazon and Barnes and Noble when published.
When you read a China Bayles mystery, you’ll not only enjoy the story and characters but the learning that comes from Ms. Albert’s research. Do you know the connection of vanilla and orchids? The possible suicide of a professor well-known for his arrogance and also for his research with orchids opens a complex case. Police Chief Sheila Dawson wants one last case before she delivers Noah who isn’t due for another month at least. She’s bored, uncomfortable, and doesn’t feel like she’s pulling her own weight (pardon the pun). She gets her wish and more. China holds a workshop about vanilla that is anything but plain and boring. China pulls on her lawyer pants to help Ruby’s daughter’s partner with her pregnancy concerns and later on, the ex-wife of the dead professor. It will be the observant and oldest member of the herb guild that cracks the case and both China and Sheila work together to tie things together in this can’t put it down mystery.
I have been reading about China Bayles ever since the first novel in the series was published. I enjoy the main characters and their relationships with one another. The series has built over time as characters have become involved in marriages, work together, have children, etc. I am always happy to pick up with the folks in Pecan Springs again.Chna's voice is folksy and welcoming; when giving back story she speaks directly to the reader. In A Plain Vanilla Murder, there is, of course, murder and more...no spoilers here though; you will need to read the book. Along the way the reader will learn a great deal about the vanilla trade, orchids and ethical practices. All of the pieces of the mystery come together in a satisfying way. The side stories, for example about Ruby's daughter's partner's pregnancy were also welcome and reminded me that a theme in this book was motherhood, both pending, past and current. I already look forward to the next to come in the series. Keep writing Ms. Albert. So...spend some time in the Hill Country of Texas. You will enjoy your stay. Many thanks to NetGalley and the author for this advance copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
Vanilla is in the air, China along with friend and business partner Ruby are offering a workshop on the spice and all it has to offer. Meanwhile a professor of botany at the local college is found dead of an apparent suicide. The University's head campus officer seems to think there is something weird about the mans death so she brings in local law enforcement to decide. When the medical examiner rules the death a homicide not a suicide the hunt for a murderer begins. The dead man happens to be the ex of one of China's good friends so she feels she must do what she can to help her. China soon learns that the man had more enemies than friends and reasons for wanting him dead span from stealing others research to dating someone half his age. With so many avenues to pursue finding a killer seems impossible. Chief of Police Sheila Dawson is also on the case several pounds heavier and very pregnant. She has been hoping for a case that will take her away from her desk and keep her in the game. Follow along as these two women follow their own avenues of investigation in the hunt for a killer. This is a great series that has truly stood the test of time. I enjoyed getting to know Sheila better and how the author made her a bigger part of the book. China has grown so much as a character throughout the years and I enjoy seeing where she is headed with each new read. I get excited over the wonderful facts that the author includes about whatever spice or herb that the book is about and the recipes are a lovely addition. I look forward to the next book and can't wait to see where the author takes China to next.
"A Plain Vanilla Murder" the 25th installment in the long running mystery series featuring amateur sleuth China Bayles." by Susan Wittig Albert. I enjoyed visiting Pecan Springs again . I have been a fan of China Bayles Mysteries for over a decade. But must admit I haven't read any in a few years. I do love the way Susan Wittig Albert weaves a story with history and natural history so that you end up learning something as well as escaping for a few hours. I was thrown off by the fact that the story didn't focus much on China’s family, Ruby, per previous books but tended to really focus on the very pregnant Police Chief Shelia and how she manages to jump into the thick of things, despite her late stages of pregnancy. With that said it still was a good story. There are twists and turns and red herrings throughout the story and it moves at a steady pace. I had a hard time putting it down. I requested and received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Persevero Press and NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my OWN.
A Plain Vanilla Murder is the first book I have read by this author. Even though this book is twenty something in the China Bayles series, I found the story easy to follow and the characters easy to keep up with. The book doesn't really deep dive into China's Thyme & Seasons Herb Shop and her expertise in herbs and spices come into play just a little with the vanilla trade. So vanilla is an orchid and a very expensive one and people die just to obtain it. A local professor is murdered in his greenhouse where he has countless expensive orchids and is working on a vanilla hybrid that will survive a vanilla killing fungus. The list of suspects grows pretty large as the scum professor seems to have wronged everyone from his ex-wife to his reseach partner to his fellow professors and even his current lover. A very pregnant chief of police, Sheila Dawson, leads the investigation and crosses paths with China in this fast paced and oddly informative mystery. The whodunit was not totally unexpected but enjoyable never the less. The book was an interesting page turning that makes me want to revisit each of the China Bayles mysteries to see what I have missed. My voluntary, unbiased review is based upon a review copy form Netgalley.
A Plain Vanilla Murder is the twenty-seventh book in The China Bayles Mystery series. I’ve read all the books in this series and am always happy when a new book appears on the shelves. I can always count of Ms. Albert providing me with a well-written, plotted, and told story. Then there are the interesting characters that we have seen develop along the way. I’ve grown to love China, Ruby Wilcox, Sheila Dawson and particularly the adorable adopted niece, Caitie and the staff that keeps China’s herb shop running. Another thing that I particularly enjoy is how each book is named after a spice, herb or plant and then it will become an integral part of the story and there are chapter headings that provide additional information and uses of that particular item. This book centers around the death of Carl Fairlee, a botany professor at Central Texas State University, who was found dead in his greenhouse atop the botany building. It is first thought that it was suicide but when Security Chief Denise Maxwell has her doubts and calls Sheila Dawson, Pecan Springs Police Chief and asks for a second opinion. Once Dawson and her lead detective, Dylan Miller, they have their doubts and take over the investigation. They soon discover that it is in fact murder and find many possible suspects. Naturally his ex-wife, Maggie Walker immediately becomes a prime suspect due to a messy divorce. As more information becomes available they learn that Fairlee might have been dealing in illegally imported orchids. Also, the graduate student that works with Fairlee loses his girlfriend to Fairlee and they were going to patent a hybrid orchid, which Fairlee registered in just his name. Maggie is able to drop to the bottom of the suspect when her daughter is kidnapped from her bed one night. China hopes she can find the daughter before the killer has a chance to strike again. I’m anxiously awaiting the next book in this exciting and informative series.
I love China Bayles mysteries and this was a very good one. I learn a lot about orchids and vanilla, and read an entertaining and engaging mystery. The mystery was solid as usual and it was great to meet again the usual cast of character and to meet new ones. I loved how the plot was developed, fast paced and full of twists and turns, the well written characters and the lovely setting. It wasn't hard to spot the culprit but I had to understand the reasons beyond the murder. I look forward to reading the next installment by Ms Wittig Albert. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
It's always nice to visit again with China, Ruby, Sheila, and the others in Pecan Springs but if you haven't read the series- don't worry, you'll be fine. You'll also learn something about herbs, flowers, and other things that grow in the earth, in this case vanilla. China has an uncanny ability to get involved in investigations and this time out she's helping Sheila, who is quite pregnant, with the murder of a botany professor. As readers of the genre know, there's always more to a victim than meets the eye. There are some cool quirky characters and a good spirit to this series. Thanks to net galley for the ARC. Perfect for Albert's fans and for those looking for a new series.
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Susan puts a spark of intrigue and adventure into every China Bayle's book. Love the info given at the beginning of each chapter relationship to the subject of the book. Enjoy!