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 ; )?