Review for Bloodroot, by Susan Wittig Albert

China Bayles goes home, to her ancestral manor house in the swamps of the South, looking for answers to the mysteries of her own family tree.

This was my first China Bayles mystery, and I enjoyed it. The herbalism, the pervasive, odorous mugginess of the swamps, the heavy feel of generations of conflict and mystery--it was all good, baby.

The plot, a straightforward investigation into whether a newly-missing man possessed a claim to the land under China's ancestral home, quickly spun off into curling detours and tangents that delved into previous generations and their secrets, as well as hereditary illnesses they may have passed on to the current generation. There were several characters who had vested interests in various outcomes. The only real letdown was the killer.

For the most part, the characters were awesome in this book, both the living and the ancestors. From Aunt Tullie, with her Huntington's chorea, to the mysterious Marie Louise, to the Chocktaw gardener, Judith. Other characters were flat or forgettable, never really connecting with me throughout the book. The killer never really felt fully fleshed out, as if the point of the book wasn't who killed the victim, but China's history, and the killer was just an excuse to bring that into the light. A pair of sisters, Dawn and Alice Ann, had the same effect on me; they seemed to float through the book without ever really seeming real.

There were several smaller themes throughout the book, which tied in nicely with herbal notations at the start of the chapters: herbal abortifacients, lily of the valley's various meanings and uses, plantation behavior on the part of the master, and of course all the implications and uses of the bloodroot plant itself. In most regards, these sort of gave away the secret, as it were. The same thing happened with the killer, whose name was given as a nickname for a certain plant, far earlier than they were listed as a suspect. As the only character with a plant name, that made them stick in my mind, and ruined the surprise; it was just a matter of figuring out why they did it.

This type of foreshadowing starts at the beginning of the book, where it's revealed who died, as well as a couple other facts, before the story technically even starts. Talk about ruining the surprise! In a mystery book, that seems like the sort of thing you specifically want to avoid doing.

4 of 5 stars.

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