BY ROB CLINE
China Bayles solves mysteries; she also runs a tea and herbalbusiness. Both aspects of her life are on full display in Susan Wittig Albert’snewest novel about Bayles, Bleeding Hearts (Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95).
Bleeding Hearts is the 15th China Bayles novel and it finds the former lawyerinvestigating accusations of sexual misconduct made against an extremely popularhigh school football coach. If you read the book’s dust jacket, you getthat information right away. If you don’t, Albert makes you wait over60 pages for it. That slow start may be related to Albert’s view of herseries as a “mega-novel,” a concept that requires some active participationfrom the reader.
“Obviously, this kind of multi-novel narration depends on readers’ interest,recollection, and intelligence,” Albert said in an email interview. “Myideal reader is a persistent reader, one who has enough patience to staywith an unfinished plot line and enough interest to go back and rereada previous book to see how it ties into the current story. (That may limitmy readership, but it seems to me the best way of fully exploiting allthe narrative possibilities of the series form.) I hope that the readerwho enters the series in mid-stream is going to be interested enough bythe characters, setting, and theme of the novel s/he is reading to fillin the complete backstory, by reading the previous books.”
Albert’s ideal reader might also need a healthy interest in herbsand healthy cooking, as these novels include recipes and information aboutherbs both within the main text and as an appendix to it. The author acknowledgesthat the inclusion of such materials may pigeonhole the books to a certaindegree, but is quick to point out that she isn’t writing solely forwomen.
“I think the inclusion of extras . . . does categorize the novels,to a certain extent,” Albert wrote. “However, I’ve beenclear since the beginning that I am writing mysteries (this is one niche),themed around gardening/herbs/cooking/small business (another niche). Readerswho enjoy these themes will probably enjoy these books. Many (but by nomeans all) of these readers are women: after all, men garden, cook, andown small businesses. . . . I don’t enjoy writing about human violence,bloody doings, and other sensational stuff. I can live with the fact thatthis is going to mean that some readers (probably males) will not findthe books interesting.”
Bleeding Hearts is structured so that the recipes and other materialsdon’t interfere with the business of storytelling, and Albert isa fine storyteller. Bayles is extremely likeable and she is surroundedby an engaging cast of recurring and one-appearance characters. Albertis particularly good at portraying relationships, both familial and amongfriends, with all the messy motivations and missteps that often characterizeconnections between people.
That said, the “who” of this “whodunit” is prettyeasy to suss out early on, and some readers may balk at the key role anOuija board plays in the investigation and in the recovery of a stolenquilt that is at the heart of one of the book’s main subplots.
Still, Bayles is good company and the various threads that clearly carrythrough from other books in the series are enticing, as are the loose endsAlbert leaves herself for future novels.
The shape of those future novels isn’t fully developed yet, butAlbert does have a general sense of her mega-novel’s arc. She isalso willing to tip her hand a bit about an important potential changein her upcoming plots.
“I understand both the arc of the novel and the arc of the seriesin the same way. But no, I never fully understand where a novel is goingto turn out when I begin writing it. I know approximately where the ‘central’ mysteryis going to turn out (the whodunit part),” she wrote. “ButI don’t know what new characters may appear, or how the main ensemblecharacters are going to change—or even whether they will survive.(I’ve been pretty good about not killing people off, but that’sgoing to change.)
“And since I don’t know what’s going to happen to thecharacters, I can’t definitively predict the future arc of the series.I have a rough idea, in the same way you have a rough idea about what’sgoing to happen in your family and your neighborhood over the next fewyears—but that’s about as definite as I can get.”