China takes a retreat to a nearby monastery, where the sisters grow rocambole garlic for a living.
But the peaceful harmony of St. Theresa’s is threatened by arson fires and a rash of nasty poison-pen letters. These dirty tricks appear to be motivated by an attempt to change rustic St. T into a posh conference center for church higher-ups—a plan made possible by a windfall inheritance from St. T’s benefactor.
Fromo the St. Theresa sisters, China learns about forgiveness and mercy–and discovers some hard truths about her own limitations.
In Roman times, rue was used as an eyewash to cleanse the sight, and included in amulets to protect from contagious illness. By the medieval period, it was also thought to repel evil, and priests used the plant as a brush to shake holy water as they gave the blessing—hence the name, “herb of grace.” Worn as an amulet, it was also believed to give the wearer the power of identifying witches. In courts of law in Shakespeare’s day, pots of rue were arranged in front of the judge’s bench to purify the air of any plague that might be brought by prisoners from the gaol. The herb was also associated with the idea of repentance, or “ruefulness.”
Praise for The China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
“Holy rocambole!…an unsentimental look at convent life.”
“An intricate and interesting puzzle.”
“A well-plotted mystery with strong characters and a wonderfully realized setting.”
Reading Group Guides: Rueful Death – Book 5
Discussion questions for Rueful Death
Warning! Contains spoilers (plot hints).
- Most of the China Bayles books are set in Pecan Springs. This mystery, however, takes place in a different setting. How do you feel about the locale of Rueful Death? Does the change in setting suggest anything about China’s psychological growth and development?
- The Sisters of the Holy Heart have different attitudes toward St. Theresa’s—what it means, what it should be used for, what kind of potential it has. How do these attitudes help to shape the plot? Does this conflict suggest anything to you about differing attitudes in religious organizations you’re familiar with?
- China goes to St. Theresa’s to take a break from her problems and “get her head straight.” (Is this urge familiar to you? Do you ever just want to get away?) Ironically, though, she finds that the sisters of St. Theresa’s face several big problems. Are there any ways in which their problems resemble China’s own dilemmas? As she tries to solve the puzzle of St. Theresa’s, what conclusions does she come to regarding her own personal puzzles?
- In this book, the characters of the sisters proved difficult for me to define. After I thought about this, I realized that normally, in a mystery (in most novels, actually), the author creates a strong dramatic tension among the characters by exaggerating some of their personality characteristics: people strongly hate, strongly love, strongly care. But deeply spiritual people often experience a deep inner calm that softens their personality characteristics—and it was that calm that I wanted to show. I wonder this: as you read this novel, can you feel something of the real peace these women have achieved as members of their community? Can you also feel something of the needs and desires that make them individuals? How do these desires shape the mystery? How successful was I, as an author, in creating these characters and making them (somewhat) different?
- In an unabridged dictionary, look up the word “ruth.” Now, reread the quotation from Richard III that introduces the book. How are “rue” and “ruth” connected? Do you think that Ruth is able to truly “rue” what she has done? What is implied by this choice of names, do you think?
- Rue—the “herb of grace”—is the thematic herb in this novel. What symbolic meanings are associated with this herb? Go back through the headnotes and reread those that mention rue. What light do these quotations shed on the events, people, and ideas of this book? What do the chapter headnotes add to your experience of the mystery?
- Go back and reread the first two paragraphs of Chapter One. What does China mean when she says, “Sometimes, what you think was a mistake, or even a crime, turns out to be something else altogether?”
Your reading group might enjoy refreshments made from some of Susan’s recipe collection. You can check out the recipes at the back of most of the books, at Thyme for Tea or in one of the monthly Tea Parties. Or you can try this recipe, which is related to the book’s theme or signature herb:
At St. Theresa’s, the sisters love this garlicky spread for crackers. (Of course, they grow the garlic themselves.) You’ll also enjoy this fast, flavorful treat. It’s good for you, too. Garlic helps to lower cholesterol, fight colds, and boost the immune system. Eat lots.
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature 1-2 tblsp milk (if necessary, for proper consistency)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and mashed with the flat of a knife
2 tblsp minced fresh parsley
1 tsp minced fresh basil
Stir the cheese, adding milk if it is too stiff. Add garlic, herbs, and cayenne to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours to blend the flavors.