Nightshade – Book 16

“Quirky, enlightening and surprisingly profound, Albert’s China Bayles mysteries are an absolute delight to read: head and shoulders above most other amateur whodunits.”
Ransom Notes

China’s herb shop and catering business may be thriving, but she’s still reeling from her father’s death, and not even remotely interested in her half-brother Miles’s investigation into that event. China’s husband, on the other hand, has no such qualms. And when fate forces her to get involved as well, China realizes it’s time to bring the past to light—or else it will haunt her the rest of her life.

But China and McQuaid discover that Miles may have been keeping as many secrets as he seemed determined to uncover. How deep do the layers of secrecy go? And who has a stake in concealing the truth after sixteen years?

Read Chapter 1 – Nightshade

Nightshade

Nightshade is one of the over two thousand plants that belong to the Solanaceae. This plant family includes such edible plants as the tomato, potato, eggplant, and chile pepper; decorative plants such as the petunia; and toxic plants such as datura (Jimson weed), tobacco, henbane, mandrake, and deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna.

Over the centuries, the nightshade family has gotten a very bad rap—which is a pity, because it ranks high on the list of plant families that people have found extremely useful. It’s hard to imagine our menus without potatoes, tomatoes, chile peppers, and eggplant, or picture our gardens without the showy petunias that splash color all over the landscape. Surgeons of antiquity, who relied on plant narcotics for anesthesia, found both the mandrake and deadly nightshade indispensable when they needed to put people to sleep—although they no doubt lost a few patients in the process.

On the other hand, the nightshade family also includes the notoriously addictive tobacco, that great cash crop that has made some people hugely rich and millions of people desperately sick, and three narcotic plants that have long been associated with soothsaying, black magic, and witchcraft. It’s this side of the Solanum family—the dark side—that has given these herbs such an evil reputation.
©2008 Susan Wittig Albert

Praise for The China Bayles Herbal Mysteries

“China’s followers will delight in the complicated relationships, recipes and historical flower information.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“China’s warmth and sensitivity…endear her to readers, while her investigative skills make her a leader among female sleuths…A leisurely cozy with a Southwestern flair.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A diabolically clever sleuth…China and Ruby make Batman and Robin look like amateurs.”
—Harriet Klausner

“Add another fragrant bloom to the dozen already in the bouquet of Albert’s herbal cozies.”
—Publishers Weekly

Reading Group Guides: Nightshade – Book 16

Discussion Questions  – Warning! Contains spoilers (plot hints).

  1. All of the China Bayles books include a “signature” herb that has something to do with the story’s events or themes. In this book, the signature herb is nightshade, one of the plants in the Solanaceae family. Were you familiar with this plant family before you began reading? What new facts did you learn about it? How is it used to tell the story?
  2. The narrative opens with a dream. How does this help to set the tone of the narrative? How does it contrast with the events that open Chapter One?
  3. What does the death of China’s father (some sixteen years before the time of this book) have to do with the death of China’s brother? How are the two events related? How does solving one of these mysteries help to solve the other?
  4. All of the previous books in the series have been told through China’s first-person point of view. In Nightshade, however, Mike McQuaid, China’s husband, is a key character, and part of the story is told from his point of view. Why was this necessary? How is McQuaid’s voice different from China’s? What do you learn about China from McQuaid that you could not learn from her? What do you learn about McQuaid that you could not learn through China? What did you like about the way his story was handled? What didn’t you like?
  5. China has changed throughout the series, and Nightshade offers her several more challenges for change and growth. In what ways does she change in this book? What new challenges do you think might lie ahead for her?
  6. The China Bayles mysteries are usually built around multiple plots. In Nightshade, one of the subplots involves Ruby, who is grieving over the recent death of the man she loved. She inherits some money, wrapping up an extended story that has bridged several books. How does this work? What do you think Ruby adds to the China Bayles series? Why is she such an important character?
  7. In the “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, the author discusses her development of a trilogy within the series, and the demands this strategy places upon readers. Do you like the idea of “linked plots” that bridge several books? Why or why not?

China’s Creole Aubergine
China serves this eggplant dish to her family in Chapter One. Read what Brian and McQuaid think of it. (Hint: some folks aren’t eggplant fans. If you are, you’re bound to like this recipe! If you’re not, you’ll appreciate Brian’s reaction.)

  • 1 eggplant, sliced or cubed
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped onions
  • 3 Tbsp. chopped green bell peppers
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup sliced mushrooms
  • 2 cups canned diced tomatoes
  • 4 oz. can tomato paste
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, shredded
  • 1½ tsp. ground bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. thyme
  • ¼ tsp. ground cayenne pepper
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • ½ cup grated yellow cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. margarine

Slice or cube the eggplant, sprinkle with salt and set it aside while you make the sauce. (This “sweating” will remove some of the natural bitterness.) Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté onions and bell peppers for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Add garlic and sauté for another 2-3 minutes, then mushrooms. Cook for another minute or two, then add tomatoes and tomato paste. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then add herbs and seasonings and simmer until thick, about another 15 minutes. Rinse eggplant well and drop into boiling water; parboil 7-8 minutes, or until tender. Arrange a layer of eggplant in the bottom of a casserole dish. Cover with sauce. Continue layering, finishing with the sauce. Sprinkle on the cheese, top with seasoned bread crumbs, dot with margarine and bake at 350° F. for 30 minutes, or until bubbling. Serves 4-6.