I Drank a Cup of Herbal Brew*

Many people prefer natural remedies when they’re ill, and natural solutions for well-being. So, they go to herbalists and herbal shops, rather than to regular pharmacies. In fact, those sorts of health care products are so popular that lots of pharmacies stock them as alternatives to other sorts of medicines.

Herbalism has a long history, too. For millennia, people relied on herbalists, because there weren’t antibiotics and other modern medicines. And even now that there are, people still use herbal remedies. So, it’s not surprising that herbalism and herbalists have found their way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, we are introduced to Meredith Blake. As the older of two brothers, he inherited his family’s home and property. He had a real passion for herbs and herbalism, even dedicating a room to his special interest. He’d collected all sorts of information on the topic, too; and, although he wasn’t sought out for cures, he had a lot of background. Then, disaster struck. A long-time friend of the family, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon. And it turned out that the poison came from Meredith’s own supplies. He himself wasn’t accused of the murder, but has felt responsible since then. In fact, he shut up his room and stopped working with herbs and other plants. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. There was plenty of evidence against her, and everyone assumed she was guilty.  Now, sixteen years later, the Crale case is being re-opened. Crale’s daughter, Carla, believes her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. To find out the truth, he interviews the five people (including Blake) who were on the scene at the time of the murder. From those interviews, and from written accounts that each person writes, Poirot finds out who really killed Amyas Crale, and why.

Fans of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael can tell you how important his skills as an herbalist are. He’s a 12th Century Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. A former soldier, he’s seen his fair share of life, and has traded it in, as they say, for the cowl. His specialty is herbs and other medicines, and he’s in charge of the abbey’s infirmary. In his line of work, he’s come to know a great deal about many different sorts of plants, and what they do. He uses them for healing, and he’s familiar with the effects of those that are poisonous. That background helps him in many of the mysteries he encounters.

Much of Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph takes place in the small town of Winslough. Deborah and Simon St. James plan a trip there after Deborah meets the town’s vicar, Robin Sage, and is deeply impressed with him. By the time the couple get to the town, though, it’s too late. Sage has been killed. It seems that local herbalist Juliet Spence had invited Sage for a meal, and prepared a salad with water hemlock that she thought was wild parsnip. Since the food that she gave Sage was the last thing he was known to eat or drink, Spence is the most likely suspect. Simon St. James isn’t so sure it’s that simple, though, and asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to investigate. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way that Juliet Spence is perceived because she is an herbalist. Not everyone is enthused about her interest…

Herbal and other natural approaches to healing and health are an important part of many African cultures. And plenty of people swear by the power of such medicines. For example, Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series takes place in contemporary Ghana. Especially in urban areas such as Accra, people are familiar with, and make use of hospitals, modern antibiotics, and so on. But even those people also visit herbalists and makers of traditional remedies. In fact, Dawson’s own mother-in-law is a believer in herbalism, and takes her grandson (and Dawson’s son) to a traditional healer for a heart problem he has. And, as we learn in Wife of the Gods, this doesn’t exactly please Dawson, who is hoping to be able to afford the operation the boy needs. It’s an interesting look at the different perspectives on herbalism.

S.J.Rozan’s Lydia Chin is a Chinese-American PI who works in New York City’s Chinatown. On the one hand, she’s a 21st Century American, who lives a contemporary life. On the other, her family is traditionally Chinese, and her mother would like nothing better than for her to settle down, find a ‘proper’ Chinese husband and get married. That’s not the life that Chin wants, though. Still, she does respect her mother, and there are times when the traditional Chinese approach to healing is quite helpful. For instance, in China Trade, the first in this series, Chin is investigating a theft from a local art gallery. She knows that Mr. Gao, who owns the local apothecary, is ‘tuned in’ to all of the local gossip and knows everyone. His shop is popular, and he knows all of the traditional remedies, so he’s also quite well respected. And Chin finds that he’s a useful source of information. At one point in the novel, she’s injured (not life-threatening), and Mr. Gao sends over some herbal medicines. They work very well, and it’s an interesting look at how herbalists do their jobs.

And then there’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She’s one of the regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Meroe is Wiccan, and also has a thorough knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. She has a way, too, of responding calmly in an emergency, and that, too, is helpful when someone is ill. In more than one of the Corinna Chapman mysteries, Meroe shows her knowledge of herbs, and it proves very helpful.

Herbs and herbalists have been around for a very long time, and their expertise is valuable. There’s certainly an important place for modern antibiotics, surgery, and so on. But many people also believe in the healing power of herbs.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Spirit Voices.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ellis Peters, Kerry Greenwood, Kwei Quartey, S.J. Rozan

14 responses to “I Drank a Cup of Herbal Brew*

  1. This links in quite well with my fascination for poisons and the wrong quantity or mix of natural medicines can also be fatal. I have the name of an example on the tip of my tongue but unfortunately it isn’t getting any closer – remind me of the natural remedy to improve my memory please 🙂

    • My memory could use a real boost, too, Cleo! And it really is fascinating when you think of how many really helpful natural medicines turn lethal if they’re used wrong, or in the wrong amount, etc.. I can see why the whole topic interests you so much!

  2. Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mystery series features herbs in many of her titles and plots. It’s one of my favorite series.

    • D’oh! I meant to include that fabulous series and didn’t. I’m so glad you did, Pat. It is a fabulous series, and Susan Wittig Albert is a lovely, lovely person.

  3. In Hannah Kent’s The Good People, set in early 19th century Ireland, she shows how the poor people still went to the local “wise woman” for herbal treatments because they couldn’t afford to pay the doctor. The herbalism was all tied up with superstition at that time, with rituals being seen as important as the actual remedies. Personally, while I’ll happily use shop-bought ‘alternative’ medicines for minor complaints, if any of my relatives offered me a home-made herbal concoction I’d run for the hills… 😉

    • I’m glad you mentioned that Hannah Kent, FictionFan. Interesting that even in a time like that, just over 200 years ago, people were still relying heavily on ‘wise women’ or their equivalents. And, yes, the ritual definitely goes along with it. Even things like when something should be planted, harvested, etc., and what one should say when taking it are prescribed. I see what you mean, too, about well-meaning fiends and relatives giving you home-made brews. It wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence, would it? Perhaps if the person really were experienced, but otherwise…no.

  4. Spade & Dagger

    I’m sure many readers know that, qualified as a hospital pharmacist, Agatha Christie understood just what remedies & poisons to include in her plots. I believe PD James also used in her books examples of medicines/poisons that she came across in her varied working career.

    • You’re quite right, Spade & Dagger. Both of them were well-versed in different sorts of poisons, weren’t they? And their books reflect that knowledge. I’m glad you mentioned them.

  5. As a professional naturalist, and a budding mystery writer, I choose to kill off my story victims using natural products. Although I am an avid health food nut, I am always amazed when folks equate natural with healthy. I always tell them to consider Socrates.

    • A very apt example, Jane! And with your expertise and knowledge, you know better than most that herbs and natural products can be extremely healthful – when used carefully and appropriately. When not used in that way….well…anything can happen. I’m sure your crime stories have a ring of authenticity about them.

  6. Col

    I have a couple of the Lydia Chin books on the pile, but I’ve not tried Rozan’s work yet. Thanks for the reminder.

    • That’s an interesting series, Col. Some are written from Chin’s perspective; some are from the perspective of her occasional PI partner, Bill Smith. If you read them, I hope you’ll have a good experience.

  7. Thanks for the reminder about Lydia Chin – I read a couple of those books, and should catch up.
    Weird herbs and remedies – what opportunities for crime writers! ‘Just drink this tea, dear, it will make you feel better’. Oh, that’s just reminded me of Ira Levin’s terrifying Rosemary’s Baby, more supernatural/horror than crime…

    • Yes, but still a great example of what I had in mind, Moira, so thanks. And I couldn’t agree more: strange herbs and unusual remedies offer terrific possibilities for the crime writer, don’t they?

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