“Albert combines a fast-moving plot with the botanical lore and recipes that her readers have come to expect. Solid entertainment well within cozy fans’ comfort zone.”
Between the herb shop, the catering business, and a weekend paper-making class, China Bayles and her friends have as much work as they can handle. Of course, that doesn’t stop the rest of their lives from going on. Ruby, for example, is troubled by her mother’s strange recent behavior, and upset that her ex-boyfriend has stood her up yet again. Meanwhile, China’s half brother, Miles Danforth, is opening up old wounds, trying to investigate their father’s death—an accident, China insists, and a very cold case.
Although she can’t stop her husband from accepting Miles’ request to handle the investigation—after all, McQuaid is a PI who hasn’t had a bite in months—she could at least put the unsavory business out of mind by gathering supplies for making paper. But in a patch of yucca plants, which make great paper, she finds a very dead body—cause of death, unknown. Pecan Springs Chief of Police Sheila Dawson is on the case, but circumstances require China to lend a helping hand, behind the scenes, of course. Meddling? Maybe. But if China can find the clues that lead to the killer, who’s keeping score?
“Spanish dagger” is one of the many folk names for the striking, statuesque Yucca, a genus with some 40-50 species of perennials, shrubs, and trees with tough, sword-like leaves. A member of the Agave family and one of the most common herbs of the Southwest, Spanish dagger can be seen along roadsides, in pastures and meadows, and across the arid plains. The plant has a great and varied utility in many native cultures, supplying food, drink, medicine, clothing, footwear, and even construction materials to peoples throughout the Americas.
Praise for The China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
“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, Barnes & Noble
“China’s followers will delight in the complicated relationships, recipes and historical flower information.”
“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.”
“A diabolically clever sleuth . . . China and Ruby make Batman and Robin look like amateurs.”
“Add another fragrant bloom to the dozen already in the bouquet of Albert’s herbal cozies.”
Reading Group Guides: Spanish Dagger – book 15
Discussion Questions – Warning! Contains spoilers (plot hints).
- The story begins, as many China Bayles mysteries do, with a chapter that introduces China’s friends, involved with a project for China’s herb shop. What happens in this chapter? Why is it important?
- Many of the books in this series are built on “bridge” plots—stories that begin in one book and continue in another. There are two “bridge” plots in Spanish Dagger: the story of Ruby’s relationship to Colin Fowler and the story of China’s relationship to her half-brother and her father. As this book opens, what’s the status of the Ruby/Colin plot? The China/Miles/Bob Bayles plot?
- If you haven’t read Dead Man’s Bones or Bleeding Hearts, you haven’t met Colin Fowler. Does this matter? Why or why not?
- Colin wasn’t just Ruby’s boyfriend—he had a previous relationship with Sheila Dawson, Pecan Springs’ police chief. How/why does this connection become a part of the current situation?
- Poor Ruby. Her life, as usual, is filled with trouble: Colin’s death, the illness of her mother. While senile dementia is nothing to laugh at, the scenes with her mother do provide a kind of near-comic relief, especially because Ruby herself is able to see the macabre humor. Susan says: “As a writer, I found this combination of pathos and comedy difficult to pull off.” How well do you think she succeeded?
- Rambo is an important (and new) character in this book. What does he contribute to the story, both in terms of plot and character? What is the irony of the dog’s name, in Ruby’s view? How does our view of him change from our first acquaintance with him to the end of the book? Would you like to see more of Rambo?
- In Chapter 13, we meet a man named Tyson and hear about the “jump out boys.” Susan first learned about these undercover operators when she was researching the narcotics task forces that operated in Texas during the 1990s. Some of them were responsible for some very bad things that happened to innocent people, like the citizens of the little town of Tulia, who were arrested on the uncorroborated testimony of one man. In some ways, this is the shadow side of police work. How is this part of the story connected to Colin’s story?
- Yucca is the signature herb of this mystery. This plant, while vitally important to the native people of the Southwest, is not as as well known as the familiar kitchen herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. How does yucca figure in the plot?
- The book begins with a quotation from one of Susan’s favorite mystery writers, Terence Faherty. “It’s possible to solve a mystery and still not know all the answers.” By the end of Spanish Dagger, which mysteries have been solved? What questions are still left unanswered? How do you feel about this kind of open-ended plotting?
- In all of the China Bayles books, China has to struggle as much with her own personal issues as she does with the issues that confront her. In this book, what personal issues is she dealing with? How does she feel? Is she justified, do you think, in resisting her half-brother’s attempts to develop a more intimate relationship with her?
- Have you ever eaten prickly pear? What do you think of it?
Your reading group might enjoy refreshments made from some of Susan’s recipe collection.
- 3 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 2 Tbsp green pepper, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups yucca flowers, centers removed
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- ½ cup peas
- 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
Combine the soup stock, tomatoes, onion, celery, green pepper, garlic, salt and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes. Add yucca, sugar, peas, and vinegar. simmer another 10 minutes. Serve.