Susan Wittig Albert and the Herbal Mystery Novel

Susan Wittig Albert and her husband Bill combine their love of writing and mystery with their penchant for herbs.

| December/January 1997

  • Worlds away from the fast-track life of academia, Susan Albert, in photo at left with her friend Zach, has found time to do what she enjoys most—writing ­mystery novels, gardening, and ­relishing quiet moments relaxing at home.
    Photograph by Ralph Lauer/Fort Worth Star–Telegram
  • The Texas Hill Country offers its own version of splendor. Vast ­meadows fringed by rolling hills are awash with Indian paintbrush and horsemint.
    Photograph by Bill Albert
  • Susan’s herb gardens provide ­material for her novels. She never writes about an herb she hasn’t grown.
    Photograph by Bill Albert
  • Susan regularly fills her basket with native artemisia, which she dries and uses in wreaths.
    Photograph by Bill Albert

As a prolific fiction writer, Susan Wittig Albert is a woman of many voices. One of her favorites is that of the brash and breezy China Bayles, a small-town Texas herbalist and mystery-novel heroine. Susan follows characters and plotlines to any far-flung place she chooses, including Victorian England, but she comes home to a town much like China’s in the Texas Hill Country, where she tends her garden and her animals and shares a life with her husband that is not so far removed from that of her heroine—minus the murder and intrigue mingled with the herbs.

In fact, it’s quite a peaceful life, as I found when I spent a few days recently at the Alberts’ home in Bertram, about fifty miles northwest of Austin. Susan is a storyteller by nature, and as we drove around the countryside, we talked of her life and her work, her voices and her choices, and the fast-growing genre of women’s cozy mysteries.

Susan’s heroine China Bayles is a lawyer who has fled the big city to open an herb shop in the Texas backcountry. “China is following the curve of my own life,” she explains.

Susan herself, a medieval scholar with a doctorate in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, has held tenured positions at three universities, including dean of Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. In 1985, she stepped down as vice president for academic affairs at Southwest Texas State University and left behind the trappings of academia; her husband, Bill, bailed out of a career as a computer programmer and data analyst. They were off to pursue The Writing Life (I can hear those capital letters in her voice).

The Alberts moved a house trailer onto land they owned 3 miles outside of Bertram (Home of the Oatmeal Festival, population 849). In this quiet, rural, hilly area of central Texas, mistletoe clings to the branches of mesquite trees and thick groves of cedar and live oak line the highways. In April, a dazzling tapestry of native bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and bright yellow coreopsis washes the hillsides with a chaos of color.

The Alberts took off their suits and put on plaid shirts and jeans, set up adjoining offices, and surrounded themselves with chickens, ducks, geese, and a peacock named Picasso that shrieked every time the phone rang (they have since found a more suitable home for Picasso). Susan planted herb gardens and butterfly gardens. Bill started grafting pecan trees. They started taking long walks every day down by the creek on their property, which they call Meadow Knoll.

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