January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
Welcome to another in January Magazine's "Five of a Kind" series covering the wide range of crime fiction subgenres. In this one, I'll guide you down the path of garden mysteries, pointing out some rare beauties among the literary underbrush.
Spring, of course, was for gardening. By summer most of the work is over except the watering. At my house, it's time to lounge on the porch, drinking something icy and reading something light. The contemporary crop of gardening mysteries has plenty that fit the bill for summer reading. These are books that will entertain you on a sultry afternoon or balmy evening, but won't keep you up at night listening to every creak on the stairs or rustle in the shrubbery.
The gnarled roots of the garden theme in crime fiction reach all the way back to Wilkie Collins' 1868 classic The Moonstone, in which police investigator Sergeant Cuff's dedication to crimesolving is surpassed only by his passion for his roses. "I haven't much time to be fond of anything, but when I have a moment's kindness to bestow, most times, the roses get it," Cuff remarks.
The most famous horticultural sleuth was surely New York City private eye Nero Wolfe. His morning pilgrimage to his rooftop greenhouse to tend his rare orchids was sacrosanct. Woe be to the demanding client who dared to summon him down before afternoon office hours!
I was sad to discover that this species of gardening mystery appears to be extinct, or at least dormant. Today's professional detectives -- be they cops or P.I.s -- are more likely to spend their off-hours drinking, gambling, playing jazz, cooking, or working out than dallying amongst the dahlias.
The business of gardening seems to have been handed over to the amateurs, who have taken to it with relish. It's no trouble at all to find dozens of these characters on crime fiction bookshelves, enthusiastically spading up clues. For many of them horticulture is not a pastime but a profession: you'll find gardeners, herbalists, florists, and agricultural biologists. As Royal Horticultural Society member Avon Curry quipped in Murder Ink, "Gardeners and crime writers have quite a lot in common, not the least that they are both fond of a good plot."
At their worst, contemporary gardening mysteries can be cloyingly cute. (Reading those is an experience reminiscent of a seemingly endless bar mitzvah ceremony that I spent seated between two large aunts wearing overpowering gardenia corsages.) But at their best, the new gardening mysteries take root in the fertile ground furrowed by writers of classic English country whodunits. There are still suspicious meetings in the garden and footprints left in soft, loamy soil, but the suspects and motivations have a contemporary twist, from teen rebellion to environmental activism and agricultural economics.
For someone like me, who has trouble pruning both garden plants and reading lists, it wasn't easy to trim the current crop of garden-related mysteries down to a manageable few. But here's a bouquet of five notable specimens well worth planting on your bookshelf:
1. Janis Harrison's debut novel, Roots of Murder (due out in July), features Missouri florist Bretta Solomon. A recent widow, Bretta turns sleuth when the Amish farmer who is one of her best suppliers dies under mysterious circumstances. Harrison displays a talent for capturing the workings of a small community, from the funeral industry to the police department. Everyone from the Amish church leader to the town eccentric comes under Bretta's scrutiny in a story in which suspicion is cast about as freely as dandelion fluff.
2. Don't be embarrassed to cozy up to The Dancing Floor (1999), a terrific suspense story by a master of the English country mystery, Barbara Michaels. You'll be glad you let down your guard. Heather Tradescant, whose parents have recently died in a car crash, embarks alone on the tour of English country gardens that she and her family had planned. She discovers the ruins of a 17th-century garden, designed by a legendary landscape architect who may have been her ancestor, and meets Frank Karim, a millionaire who plans to restore the garden according to its original plan. When Heather accepts his invitation to stay, she finds herself in a town spooked by its associations with witchcraft, past and present.
3. Death of a Garden Pest (1996), by Ann Ripley, is a charming combination of excellent gardening information and cozy mystery. It stars Washington, D.C. organic-gardening expert -- and sometimes-sleuth -- Louise Eldridge. Eldridge's new public-TV show is too "green" for some people -- including the vapid newscaster selected to co-host the show, a rival TV garden expert, and one of the show's corporate sponsors. When her rival is murdered at the station -- poisoned with one of the commercial pesticides that Eldridge advises listeners to avoid -- Eldridge comes under suspicion herself. Readers will find a similar mix of gardening tips and crime fiction in Ripley's Mulch (1994), Death of a Political Plant (1998), and The Garden Tour (1999).
5. Rebecca Rothenberg's The Dandelion Murders (1994, out of print) is one of the grittiest books I came across dealing with the gardening theme. Microbiologist Claire Sharples' life is filled with questions. Should she have left her academic career for an assignment at an agricultural station in California's San Joaquin Valley? Can her budding relationship with a divorced fellow scientist survive if his two rambunctious kids move in with them? Why are local farmworkers -- and an out-of-town investigative reporter -- turning up dead in local fields? And why was the dead reporter wearing a flower in his buttonhole -- an alpine dandelion from far outside of the valley? Looking for the answers in the local agribusiness community could get someone killed.
Here are a few more color spots to brighten up your summer reading:
Chile Death (1998) and other titles in Susan Wittig Albert's lively series about China Bayles, a lawyer-turned-herbalist (and amateur detective). Set in Pecan Springs, Texas, these stories are strongly spiced with colorful characters. They attract many of the same readers who enjoy Diane Mott Davidson's and Tamara Myers' books about big-hearted, feisty women with a taste for crime-solving. My reaction: over-the-top, but fun. Other Albert titles are Rueful Death, Thyme of Death, Love Lies Bleeding, Rosemary Remembered, and Hangman's Root.
Blooming Murder (1994), by Jean Hager. A floral -- and sometimes florid -- country house mystery set in the Ozarks. The regional Iris Grower's Convention at Iris House -- Tess Darcy's newly opened bed-and-breakfast -- attracts a crowd of competitive social climbers. One of whom sets about pruning the guest list with deadly skill.
Green Grow the Dollars (1982), by Emma Lathan. A garden catalog company is forced to mulch its spring issue -- and its plans for hearty sales -- when a rival firm lays claim to the patent on its new miracle tomato plant. Greedy business rivals, competitive plant geneticists, corporate spying, and a good old-fashioned murder make for a juicy plot.
Creeping Jenny (1993, out of print ) and other Celia Grant mysteries by John Sherwood. Grant, a widow and owner of a rare-plant nursery in England, travels the world, encountering prized specimens of flora -- and crime.
Something in the Water (1994) and other titles in Charlotte McLeod's series of adventures featuring Peter Shandy, an amateur sleuth and professor of agronomy at Balaclava Agricultural College. These books span two decades, beginning in 1978. Shandy, the co-developer of a famous rutabaga, is adept at unearthing the agricultural clue to rural mysteries -- such as a manure pile used as a murder weapon.
Devil's Trumpet (1999), by Mary Freeman. Rachel O'Connor, a young landscape gardener, is hired by Henry Bassinger, an older man who is trying to restore a once-elegant hotel overlooking the scenic Columbia River in Oregon. When Henry is killed in an "accidental" fall soon after his nephew comes onto the scene with plans to build a modern resort, Rachel talks a friend in the police department into helping her dig up the deeper story behind Henry's death. | July 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine and grows Cranesbill geraniums in her Seattle garden.