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The China Bayles Herbal Mysteries

Reading Group Guides: Hangman's Root (#3)

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  1. The China Bayles mysteries are usually organized around general themes. The theme of this novel is animal abuse. How is the theme woven into the plot? How is it used to characterize various characters in the book?

  2. The first two China Bayles novels focussed on the small-town, nostalgic aspects of Pecan Springs. The setting of this book also includes the campus of Central Texas State University. How does this change in setting affect your picture of this town? How does it affect the tone of the book and the range of characters?

  3. As a series protagonist, China Bayles seems to learn something about herself from every book. What do you think she learns in this book? In what direction does her relationship with McQuaid appear to be moving? How do you feel about this? What kinds of choices would you like to see her make?

  4. Two new series characters have been introduced in this book: Smart Cookie and The Whiz. What do you think of these women? What are their contributions to the book? How do you feel about the protagonist in a mystery sharing the limelight with other strong characters?

  5. "This novel is really about excesses," one review has said. "Several of the main characters seem to go too far." In what ways do Miles Hardwick and Frank Castle go too far? What motivates them? In what ways does Dottie Riddle also go too far? What motivates her? What about the Whiz? Ruby? Ruby's daughter? What is China's role?

  6. The titles of the China Bayles mysteries are related (sometimes obliquely) to herbs. Hangman's Root is named for the herb catnip. The leaves of this plant are mildly sedative (they make a nice sleepy-time tea), but in colonial America, the roots were thought to have the opposite effect: that is, drunk as a tea, the root was said to arouse you, make you angry. How do you think this element figures in the plot? To what does the word "root" refer (besides catnip root)?

Your reading group might enjoy refreshments made from some of Susan's recipe collection. You can check out the recipes at the back of most of the books, at Thyme for Tea or in one of the monthly Tea Parties. Or you can try this recipe, which is related to the book's theme or signature herb:


In the last chapter of Hangman's Root, China, Ruby, Smart Cookie, and the Whiz gather around the kitchen table to speculate about the future of Dotty and her rescued guinea pigs. As they talk, they munch on pieces of castagnaccio, a flat, crusty cake that comes from Tuscany. The traditional recipe calls for chestnut flour, but China uses ground pecans instead. This recipe makes two cakes, the surface of which will be cracked and strange-looking. Be brave. It tastes good.

  • ¼ c raisins
  • 1 lb nut flour
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 1 tblsp rosemary leaves, chopped fine
  • 2 tblsp olive oil
  • 2 tblsp honey
  • 1/3 c chopped nuts (pecans or almonds)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tblsp rosemary leaves, whole

Heat your oven to 375 degrees. Generously oil two glass or ceramic pie pans with olive oil. Soak the raisins in warm water for 10 minutes, drain and press out the water. Put the nut flour into a large bowl and add the cold water, a cup at a time. Add drained raisins, chopped rosemary, half the olive oil, honey, nuts, and salt. Mix well. Divide and place in the pie pans, patting into shape. Sprinkle each cake with the whole rosemary leaves. Bake for 75 minutes, until the top is crispy.