Friday, April 25, 2008
Habeas Hortus: Cultivating for Clues
Mystery Books featuring Garden Related Topics
By Becke Davis
Gardening is a deceptively gentle pursuit: we ruthlessly weed out unwanted invaders, deadhead with gusto and wield the glistening blades of our pruners without remorse. If cold-blooded murder doesn’t fit with your image of rose-covered arbors, think again. Who else can mourn the loss of a beloved plant while investigating ways to get rid of moles and other pests with bloodthirsty enthusiasm? Like turning over a rock, gardening has a dark side, too.
The planting pit that hides a grave, the freshly tilled soil revealing bleached bones – these are age-old themes in the mystery genre. Who hasn’t read a mystery that featured arsenic or strychnine in the garden shed or clues left clinging to the ivy outside the victim’s window?
Thorns and roses. Perfumes and poisons. Gardens and graves. The very serenity of a garden can conjure up sharply contrasting images. There is a literary tradition of horticulture and homicide, from Sergeant Cuff’s obsession with roses in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 mystery The Moonstone to Nero Wolfe’s passion for orchids to Hercule Poirot who decides to retire and grow vegetable marrows at one point in his career.
After battling slugs and beetles, rock hard clay or persistent weeds, many gardeners take vicarious pleasure reading about detectives who bring order to chaos and justice to evil-doers aided by a flair for the floriferous. Today our bookstores and libraries are filled with mystery books with a botanical bite.
Colonel Mustard’s in the conservatory with a candlestick, but never fear – he won’t get away with the dastardly deed if any of the new breed of gardening detective is on the case. Perennials and plots combine in John Sherwood’s series featuring fictional detective Celia Grant, a professional botanist and horticulturist who operates a retail nursery called Archerscroft and cultivates hellebores. This petite British widow is no prude, but she disposes of amorous advances swiftly and regularly as she sorts through the muddle of clues.
The plants in these books are often exotic or obscure but in Sherwood’s 1987 book Flowers of Evil the author hit close to home. The featured poison in this book is Datura stramonium, also known as thornapple or jimsonweed. This weedy plant is rare in England but dangerously common in the Midwest. This American native has a striking appearance and a deadly nature – it is poisonous in all its parts. Jimsonweed has been used by unwary teenagers as a hallucinogen to the extent that some states list it as a controlled substance.
While Sherwood’s books are technically accurate they can be heavy going -- they are short in length but heavy on the botanical latin. Some of his later books moved away from that tendency, as in the 1994 book Bones Gather No Moss, in which Celia Grant travels to France’s Loire Valley in search of a missing botanist. ‘Cherchez la femme’ leads to moss bogs and missing botanical drawings, and soon the hunt for a murderer is afoot. John Sherwood’s books are out of print but still available in libraries and used book stores.
Susan Wittig Albert has created a small Texas town called Pecan Springs and stocked it with everything from stereotyped redneck cops named ‘Bubba’ to former nuns running restaurants. Albert spices thing up by adding a sexy significant other who can’t convince the intrepid heroine to tie the knot when the series kicks off. China Bayles is too busy tying bunches of dried flowers to hang from the wooden beams of her tiny shop as well as tying up loose ends in murderous plots featuring talk show celebrities, witches and new-agers and animal testing – just for a start.
China Bayles left a big city criminal law firm to get away from the rat race but her shop, Thyme and Seasons, seems to attract murder and mayhem like a magnet. Ms. Bayles is a far cry from Sherlock Holmes and her sidekick, the tall redheaded Ruby Wilcox would only be like Watson if he was a funky-dressing, Rockette looking female with PMS, but the two are a dynamic duo perfect for mysteries a century on from Conan Doyle’s heyday. Rich in characters and packed with a savory blend of herb lore and cultivation tips, these books have an avid following – it is not unusual to find copies at craft fairs, on display with herbal soaps and sachets.
Rebecca Rothenberg’s garden mysteries feature microbiologist Claire Sharples, a New Englander living in California’s arid San Joaquin Valley, working as a plant pathologist at an Agricultural Research Station. Her 1994 book The Dandelion Murders find Ms. Sharples struggling with her on-again, off-again relationship with the local university extension expert on stone fruits. His experience and her expertise put them in the front line when a migrant worker is found dead, poisoned by pesticides. Not a ‘cozy’ murder by any means, the gruesome plot is scattered with horticultural clues and vivid descriptions of a landscape deprived of water.
Rebecca Rothenberg, who died ten years ago at age 50, was a writer, musician, epidemiologist, amateur botanist, president of the San Gabriel chapter of the California Native Plants Society, as well as the author of the Claire Sharples Botanical Mystery series. A website in her honor notes that after Rothenberg’s untimely death in 1998, her friend and colleague, Taffy Cannon (author of the Nan Robinson series and the Agatha and Macavity Award-nominated Guns and Roses) completed the manuscript of The Tumbleweed Murders.
Charlotte MacLeod is a New England writer whose writing style is more reminiscent of British authors than Americans. Although MacLeod has written eleven novels featuring horticulturist detective Professor Peter Shandy, his botanical knowledge is not always called upon to solve the crimes.
Lupines are the lure that pull Professor Shady into Something in the Water (1994). Although lush lupines and hints of a fountain of youth are recurring themes, the plot centers on more eccentric characters than eclectic plants. It is a lighthearted romp but it may leave some gardeners wishing for hardier fare with more botany and less of the bizarre.
Digging for dirt is nothing new in the annals of crime, but a murder hidden in the mulch is an unusual twist. Ann Ripley’s Mulch steps out of the cozy garden genre and into the realm of diplomats and spies in a bedroom suburb of Washington, D.C. Housewife and mother Louise Eldridge has just moved once again and is none too happy about it – she’s been left on her own to deal with libidinous movers, nosy neighbors and all the problems of settling into a new home.
Eldridge decides to use creative organic gardening theories to solve the problems of a backyard swamp. When mountains of mulch yield body parts, the Eldridge family finds itself sucked into a steamy political intrigue that makes the average compost heap seem positively blooming by comparison.
Agatha Christie’s expertise was poison, not perennials, but she entwined the two in many of her books. Hercule Poirot solves a mystery with a garden theme in Sad Cypress and a garden is the key to another murder Poirot solves in the short story “How Does Your Garden Grow?”, published in The Regatta Mystery.
In Christie’s Remembered Death, the characters have names with a floral theme and references to the Victorian language of flowers. A garden catalogue, a knowledge of dahlias and the language of flowers are integral to the plot in the Miss Marple short story “The Four Suspects”, published in a collection called The Thirteen Problems. In the same collection, Miss Marple uses her powers of deduction and a clue of pink primroses to solve the mystery of “The Blue Geranium,” while in “The Herb of Death” a savory stuffing of sage and onions is replaced by sage and foxgloves with deadly results.
Miss Marple’s knowledge of village affairs and her sense of evil help her to solve most cases, but occasionally she is assisted by her attention to plants, as in A Murder is Announced where violets hold the key. In A Pocket Full of Rye the poison is taxine, an alkadoid derived from yew berries while in Nemesis a white-flowering form of the fast-growing silver lace vine provides a major clue.
The cycle of death and rebirth in the garden is a seasonal reminder of our own mortality. When you need a rest from working in the garden, curl up with a good mystery – if you don’t have a conservatory, a folly or a summerhouse, any comfortable chair will do. But be forewarned – some of these mysteries are addictive and reading, like gardening, can be a dangerous pleasure.
Presented at the B&B Riverboat Cruise Luncheon in conjunction with the Cincinnati Flower Show, April 25, 2008.
Posted by Becke Davis at 7:58 PM