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.