Monday, May 10, 2010

And We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden*

Many of us feel a strong connection with plants and growing things. We have gardens in the spring and summer, we miss being outdoors when it’s cold and wet or snowy, and even those of us who aren’t keen on gardening often feel the appeal of greenery. You even see small “balcony gardens” in apartments in large urban areas. There’s research, too, that suggests that plants and flowers offer psychological and physical benefits to us. Not having a background in medicine or psychology, I can’t say with any certainty why this is; perhaps it has to do with the fact that for many of us, plants symbolize optimism and life – or perhaps that’s too esoteric. Either way, planting and growing things is a focus for many people in real life, so it makes sense that we’d see a lot of greenery in crime fiction, too. Of course, in crime fiction, greenery can also be deadly…

There are some interesting examples of the power of plants in some historical mysteries. For example, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine Monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, is an herbalist. He’s an expert not just in plants, but also in healing, so he’s called upon frequently when anyone needs medical attention. That’s the irony of Monk’s Hood, in which one of Cadfael’s own preparations is used to poison Gervase Bonel, who was on the point of signing over all of his lands to the Abbey in return for a guaranteed living under the Abbey’s protection. Cadfael finds that Bonel was poisoned by oil of monk’s hood, which eases muscle aches and has other benefits if applied externally, but which is deadly if ingested. What’s worse, the poison came from Cadfael’s own supplies. The most likely suspect is Bonel’s stepson Edwin, who would inherit Bonel’s lands if Bonel didn’t cede them to the Abbey. Of course, things don’t turn out to be as simple as that, and Cadfael sets out to discover who really killed Bonel.

In Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet Edward Arbuthnott, the apothecary for Banff, Scotland. His young assistant, Patrick Davidson, is in love with his daughter, Marion. The problem is that so is Charles Thom, the local music master. Early one morning, Davidson’s body is found in the classroom of Alexander Seaton, undermaster at the grammar school. Thom is immediately suspected, and is soon imprisoned. He begs Seaton to clear his name, and Seaton agrees. As he sets out to find out how and why Davidson was killed, Seaton learns that the plant used to poison Davidson is a rare plant that holds the key to his murder. When he finally puts the pieces of the puzzle together, Seaton tracks down the source of the plant – and risks his own life in doing so.

Agatha Christie weaves gardening, greenery and plants through several of her novels. Miss Marple, for instance, very much enjoys gardening, and that’s often how she hears the local gossip that helps her put the pieces of a case together. In fact, in The Murder at the Vicarage, she’s in her garden when a shot rings out from the nearby vicarage; Colonel Protheroe, the local magistrate, has just been killed. At first, recently-arrived painter Lawrence Redding seems the most likely suspect. Protheroe’s daughter was sitting for him, against her father’s wishes. What’s worse, Protheroe’s much-younger wife, Anne, was having an affair with him. All is not as it seems, though, and Miss Marple uses her knowledge of what goes on in St. Mary Mead, as well as her knowledge of human nature, to find out who really killed Colonel Protheroe. In fact, Miss Marple finds gardening a very useful occupation as she goes about her sleuthing.

Hercule Poirot is not what you would call a gardener, although neatly symmetrical, formal gardens appeal to him. Yet, in Hallowe’en Party, he encounters an entirely different kind of garden. Michael Garfield is an enigmatic but highly talented landscape designer who’s been hired by wealthy widow Mrs. Llewellyn-Smith to create a very special large garden for her. This garden isn’t like any other garden most local people have seen; it’s more like a fairy garden, and has unusual plants and trees. It’s recognized as a real work of art, and Garfield is justly proud of it. It’s also tied in with tragedy. One evening at a Hallowe’en party, a young teenager, Joyce Reynolds, is drowned in a bucket of water just hours after she says that she’s seen a murder. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story writer, asks Poirot to investigate. He agrees, and learns that Joyce’s murder, and one other death, are related to several other disturbing events in the village, and all of them have to do with the garden.

A garden also features in Christie’s Postern of Fate, her last novel. In that novel, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have retired and moved to the village of Hollowquay. While she’s looking through some books left by the previous owners, Tuppence finds a book with a cryptic message in it, hinting that “Mary Jordan did not die naturally.” Both Beresfords get curious about the message and begin to ask questions. It turns out that Mary Jordan had been a German maid who lived in the village many years ago. She was eating dinner with the family of the child who wrote the message in the book when she died of what turned out to be foxglove poisoning. At the time, her death was put down to a tragic accident; the wrong greens were gathered from the garden for the meal. The Beresfords learn, though, that her death was deliberate, and related to World War I espionage in the area.

A tragic accident is also blamed for the death of Vicar Robin Sage in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. Sage is visiting at the home of local herbalist Juliet Spence and her daughter, and is invited to stay for dinner. Juliet gathers greens for dinner, and among them is water hemlock, which she’s mistaken for wild parsnip. Deborah and Simon St. James visit the area soon after the death, and Simon doesn’t think it’s likely that this death was an accident. So he asks his friend, Inspector Lynley, to investigate. Lynley finds that the village of Wimslough, where Sage’s church is located, is full of secrets, and that Sage’s death was tied up with the village’s history.

In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, Oxford historian Daniel Kind and his girlfriend, Miranda, have taken a cottage near the village of Old Sawrey. The cottage has attached to it a garden in a strange shape. Kind tries to figure out what the shape means, and contacts the landscaping firm that created the garden. It turns out that a former employee of that firm, Warren Howe, was murdered with his own scythe ten years earlier. Howe’s wife, Tina, was suspected of the crime, but she had an alibi, so the police couldn’t pursue the case. In the meantime, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team have re-opened the Howe case after receiving anonymous notes implicating Tina in the crime. So, each in their separate ways, Kind and Scarlett investigate the crime. In the end, the shape of the garden, which is itself a sort of cipher, gives Kind vital clues that help solve the mystery of Howe’s murder and of other, long-ago events in the village.

In Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, Elizabeth Stewart is executed for witchcraft when it’s believed that she caused several locals to have hallucinations. It turns out that bread she baked contained an ergot with psychotropic effects. Centuries later, one of Elizabeth’s descendents, Kimberly Stewart, gets involved with a neurologist, Edward Armstrong, who wants to use the ergot to develop a new-generation anti-depression drug. At first, the results are dramatic and positive. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the drug has some very frightening side effects, and before Kimberly knows it, she and Edward are in much more danger than they could have imagined.

And, just in case you weren’t convinced to be careful in the garden and with growing things, Dorte at Dj’s Krimiblog has written a wonderful flash fiction piece called Mushrooms and Toadstools. I don’t want to give the story away, so please, check it out!

Plants, growing things, and gardening seem to add a lot to life for most people. Rosemary Harris even has a series that focuses on gardening and landscaping – her Paula Halliday series. But there, of course gardening, greenery and growing things always pose risks... Which are your favorite stories that focus on gardening and greenery?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell's Woodstock.

On Another Note…

Thanks to Chris Well of The Thrill of it All for helping me kick off my blog tour in style!! Now, where did I pack my other shoes ; )?


  1. One opening scene from a book that I will remember for a very long time is Nigel McCrery's Still Waters - an elderly lady is in a garden pruning roses and there are children romping around the garden - then the lady takes her gardening shears to the children's fingers! Eeeeek.

    I am involved in establishing a community garden in my local area and we are just about to start digging and preparing - there have been a few tense moments already with people arguing and, of course, my thoughts turned to murder - wondering if there had been any crime stories set in a community garden or English style allotment.

  2. The heroine of my W.I.P. has a garden, mainly a food garden. (She is self-employed doing odd-jobs, she needs to be as self-reliant as possible.) It doesn't play a big part in the story, other than it being the scene of running this way and that.

    Well, it's in the scene I just wrote in which she evicts a tomato hornworm. It's icky and disgusting, but she still names it "Heimlich" and wishes it luck before she tosses it into the pit of doom (i.e. the wild valley behind her house).

    She's not exactly your hard-boiled type.

  3. I'm just getting started into The Cipher Garden, I didn't know it had to do with gardens...well, not really. But, now I can't wait to read it.


  4. One series that comes to mind is Susan Witting Albert's China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. Each book focuses on an herb and how it can and was used to kill someone. Another series is Jim and Joyce Lavene's Peggy Lee garden mysteries. Love both of these series.

    Have fun on your tour.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Excellent examples once again, Margot. I love Brother Cadfael! One of my friends reads books in the Gardening series by Ann Ripley. I have never tried these books though and have no opinion on them. Here is a link I just found.

  6. Bernadette - Eeek, indeed! I hadn't read Still Waters, but it certainly sounds like a very creepy beginning to a story. I can imagine that working together like that can lead to tenseness. I can't think at the moment of murders that take place in that setting. However, there are lots of different gardening and plant-related murders that are hopefully similar. I found this article about gardning mysteries. A bit sexist, but for all that interesting. Then, here's an article from January Magazine about garden/plant/etc-related crime fiction. Hopefully, this will help.

    Daring Novelist - So what if your protagonist isn't "hardboiled;" she sounds really interesting. I wouldn't have thought of Heimlich as a name for a worm, but why not? It sounds like an intriguing novel, and I'm interested in your protagonist already.

    Clarissa - I think you'll love the book! The Cipher Garden is a haunting mystery, an interesting intellectual puzzle, and has some fabulous characterization. The garden itself comes into its own, so to speak, a bit later in the novel; you'll get there. I'm so glad you're reading that one; I think you'll really be glad you did. 'Course, I'm biased...

    Mason - Thanks for reminding me of Susan Witting Albert's series; that is a good one, isn't it? I'm less familiar with the Peggy Lee series, but it sounds interesting. I'll have to try it - thanks for the tip : ). And thanks for the good wishes for the tour, too : ).

    Book Mole - Thanks : ). And isn't Brother Cadfael a great character?! I really like him. The stories are very well-done, too. And thanks for the link to the Ann Ripley series. I'm not familiar with them, either, but I love exploring new series, so here goes...

  7. Re "Heimlich": that's the name of the big caterpillar in "A Bug's Life". (I didn't mention that the character is a movie buff.) This raises the question as to whether the moment works if you don't happen to know that. I _think_ it does.

  8. I was going to mention the Lavenes' garden series, too! Joyce has done tons of poison research. They're friends of mine (local) and I worry about having supper with Poisoning Joyce!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Daring Novelist - Oh, I haven't seen A Bug's Life for years! Well, if your protagonist is a movie buff, then I can completely understand the choice of name. And I'm sure the moment works well, whether or not one knows that.

    Elizabeth - LOL! Maybe a restaurant is a safer choice ; ). Seriously, I admire people who do careful research when they write. I'm going to have to check out the Lavernes' series.

  10. I've been telling myself daily to get thee to the garden! Gardens and writing just seem to go together and inspire one another. Thanks for this post.

  11. Karen - I know exactly what you mean; there is such a lot of inspiration, isn't there, from watching things grow. It's just one of those activities that really seems to get the "creative juices" flowing.

  12. I like reading about gardens, I like looking at pictures of gardens, I like walking around gardens. I have discovered over the years that this does not necessarily mean I am a gardener (which you would instantly realize if you saw my yard). I'd like to putter about, pulling the occasional weed, tending to my delicate roses, gathering fresh greens for dinner. My reality is knowing somewhere, under all the weeds and bluebells (trust me, there are hundreds) there is dirt. There must be, right?

  13. Oh, I hadn´t seen that one coming! (My toadstools). Thank you very much, Margot :D

    You have mentioned so many good examples already, but I do love a good plot with poison, and leaving the possibility open that it might be an accident often works very well.

    Isn´t there something about poison in Barbara Vine´s "Asta´s Book"? (aka "Anna´s Book")

  14. Elspeth - LOL! I know exactly what you mean about the difference between enjoying gardens and being a gardener. I'm the same way, I must confess. So yes, I can attest that there is dirt under the weeds and bluebells (which, by the way, I think are beautiful). I love irises for that reason; they are beautiful, they are completely maintenance-free (well, nearly), and they make it look as though one's a much more faithful gardener than I really am : ).

    Dorte - It's my pleasure - that was a great story! I agree with you, too, about plots where a garden/poison "accident" could be an accident (as it sometimes is in these plots)...or may not be. And, right you are about Asta's Book. There's poison there (and a poison pen letter, too). I need to re-read that one; it was good!

  15. oh what a delicious post! I love gardening and I have two wips that include gardening. One is a mystery that is called 'Earth Bound' and in it a gardener at a historical garden is found dead in the heather. In the other, non mystery 'True', the protagonist loves to garden and a healing woman she meets has a herb garden. I love to think about gardening and what would be growing at the times my novels are set. Lots of fun! Especially on rainy days like today when I can't get INTO the garden.

  16. Jan - Thank you : ). Your WIPs both sound fascinating. I look forward to reading them when they come out. You make an interesting point, too, about the details of what's growing or not at the time and in the place where the story occurs. I try to think about that, too, although no-one would confuse me with a serious gardener : ). I have to say, I wish it rained a bit more here; I like changes in weather like that...

  17. The garden shed and its toxic substances has also been used well. I'm trying to remember one televised not long ago. Darn.

  18. Patti - Don't you just hate when that happens?! You've reminded me, though, of Agatha Christie's Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client, in which weed killer is suspected of being the poison that kills Emily Arundell...

  19. I too love gardens, I only have a very tiny one and have never had much of a talent for gardening or the time to keep it "properly" but I shelled out for a firm to come in and spend a day "sorting it out" for me recently, and now I really like putting plants in and watering them (if I can find a space), providing nuts for birds, etc.
    Great examples of gardening themes in books - I too remember that Still Waters opening that Bernadette describes- shocking. I read the book when it was first published as Still Waters, but the publisher (in the UK anyway) Quercus has recently re-released it with a different title, Core of Evil so be warned.

    I enjoyed The Cipher Garden very much, but perhaps not the garden ;-)

    I recently read The Last Fix by K O Dahl where gardening is part of the background in several ways. There is one nice but small aspect about 2/3 in where the main detective muses on gardens.

  20. Maxine - Yes, I agree with you on both counts about The Cipher Garden : ) I admire you for putting the thought and care into your garden that you do. I'll bet it's lovely. I have to say that gardening is not my forte, although over the years I've done just a bit of it. Where I live now, we haven't got a garden, unless you consider a few house plants a garden : ). I've put Still Waters/Core of Evil on my TBR. Folks, do check out this fine review of the novel. And also, do check out Maxine's fine review of The Last Fix . I haven't read that one yet, either, but your review has me very much interested in it.