Murder in the Garden!

It would seem that every book I’ve picked up lately is a murder mystery. Switching on the television, I’m greeted with crime dramas on every channel. Regardless of the era, these stories are all built from similar ingredients: haunting scenery, graphic details, mystery and suspense. Beneath the puzzle and unease though, they show a thoughtful analysis of human nature – the cycle of life, our fear of the unknown, the search for truth. Not dissimilarly, these are thoughts we also contemplate while amongst the garden, our hands in the dirt and boots crunching through decay.

Imagine my satisfaction then, when I recently discovered an entire literary sub-genre devoted to crime in the garden. Dubbed the cozy garden mystery, it’s a field of forensic botanists, vandalised flower farms, murdered orchid growers and death by nightshade. With charming titles like A Thyme to Die and Murder with Lemon Tea Cakes, expect to find yourself lost somewhere in the Cotswolds amongst a field of delight and dismay.

I have fond memories of crime fiction from my school days. A favourite teacher of mine had a real knack for bringing the stories of PD James and Chandler to life. I remember her delight in explaining the conventions, the red herrings, butlers and isolated settings as she led us through each clue. Every action, we would discover, had a raison d’être within the story – discarded handkerchiefs, poisons and crossed lovers, they all had their part to play. And then, the big ending, the solving of the crime! Righteous in our youth, we would be desperate for justice and indignant when we perceived the ending to be unjust.

These stories asked questions far bigger than whodunit and with what. They were, and continue to be, a reflection of the political and cultural climate of their time. Maybe that’s why these days we appear to be increasingly fascinated by the macabre. We live in an atmosphere of ambiguity, uncertainty and unrest; that much is clear. Of course, then, the appeal of solving wrongdoings and bringing the perpetrators to justice prevails. So if we must satiate this appetite for crime, let it at least be in the garden where our voyeurism and sleuthing shines!

As a newcomer to the garden mystery, I sought out the help of Seattle based Karen G Andersen – writer of non-fiction, fiction and criticism, avid cozy garden mystery reader and most importantly, keen amateur gardener – to give a run-down of the genre. And if, like me, you’re currently restructuring your day to allow for maximum garden mystery reading time but aren’t sure where to begin, never fear! Karen has been so kind as to suggest her top four favourites.

Karen G. Anderson's writing, reading and reviewing abode. Image by Karen

Karen, what are some of the must have elements of a cozy mystery/crime fiction story? There are exceptions to any rule, but in general a “cozy” is more likely to be called a “mystery” than a “crime fiction” story. There may not even be an actual crime involved, merely a mystery or a misunderstanding that leads everyone to suspect a crime.

The detective in a cozy is unlikely to be a law enforcement officer, or even a licensed private eye. But many of the amateur detectives in cozies are associated with professions that include research, observation, interviewing, and theorizing. This includes librarians, journalists, scientists, professors — and gardeners!

Cozies are usually somewhat light hearted. To keep them that way, the crime victims are rarely children or people beloved of the narrator or the detective. In fact, the victims are somewhat annoying: bill collectors, nosey neighbours, obnoxious teenagers, or unpleasant snobs. (The unscrupulous building contractor who is murdered at the start of Diane Mott Davidson’s Prime Cut, is a perfect example. I mean, who hasn’t wanted, at some point, to murder their contractor?)

Why do you think gardening audiences like reading these stories so much?

I think that people who garden have a natural affinity for amateur detectives.”

Planning a garden, or maintaining a garden year-to-year, requires constant analysis of what’s going on, whether it’s soil conditions, overgrown shrubs, or new garden plots. You are making decisions about what will work and what won’t and what’s worth devoting your energy to pursuing. So, I think it’s absolutely natural for gardeners to appreciate the thought processes of a detective.

I also think that gardeners like watching the detectives in cozies. It’s that very delicate issue of amateur versus professionals. As an amateur gardener, I’ve certainly been sneered at by horticultural experts who insist on using the Latin names for everything (turns out a Bellis perennis is a daisy!) and make fun of my old-fashioned roses. As a result, I’m really rooting for the armchair detective to outwit the official police!

What do you love about garden mysteries? What’s delightful about garden mysteries is the way the authors slip in great gardening advice or historical information about plants. For that reason, I’ve really enjoyed Ann Ripley’s series about organic gardening expert Louise Eldridge. You also get to explore other garden climates — Eldridge works in the Washington, D.C., area, which is such a wonderful lush climate for gardening. The Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, which are set in a medieval monastery in 12th century England, include fascinating details about herbs and herbal medicines.

It’s not an obvious partnership, the garden and crime. Abstractly, the garden suggests an escape to tranquillity and peace whilst crime fiction suggests the exact opposite. Why do you think together the two create such a successful partnership? I might have to disagree. Gardens are tranquil and peaceful, but only superficially. Plants die in the fall and winter, and in the spring, there is life-and-death competition between weeds and plants for survival. Many beautiful plants are poisonous. And, in almost every culture, there are particular flowers that are associated with death — such as white chrysanthemums in Europe. In The Name of the Rose, mystery author and semiotician Umberto Eco used the rose as a symbol for beautiful things that are inevitably going to die.

I think this dramatic tension — between the tranquil appearance and the dangers that lurk — is what makes the partnership of gardening and crime fiction successful.”

Authors mine this tension by giving their detectives — who deal with gruesome crimes on a daily basis — a gardening hobby as an escape. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, with his rooftop greenhouse of rare orchids, is but one example.

In what ways does the garden exist in the cozy genre? The garden exists most often as a setting. But for writers, a setting is not just a setting. It is a reflection or an echo of the detective’s character and motivation. A detective who gardens, or who loves gardens, plants, herbs, and such, will bring an entirely different approach to the analysis of a crime.

Gardening detectives tend to be research-oriented, patient, and extremely practical (I mean, these are people who are willing to get down and grub around in the dirt, whether in the yard or in the investigation).”

You’ll see the garden appear as a motive (usually involving land ownership, or arguments over garden design) and as a weapon (most often when a plant is used for poison, or a body is hidden in a garden). In Charlotte McLeod’s marvellous series about an agricultural college, a manure pile is used as a murder weapon.

Are you a gardener? Absolutely. I started out in my 30s, working with dozens of varieties of hardy geraniums because I had a Seattle bungalow with a rockery and those are classic low-maintenance rockery plants. My favourite is the Geranium Rozanne. But when I moved to a house with a slightly larger yard, I focused on fruits and vegetables. The house came with a Canadice grapevine which produces 20 or 30 pounds of spicy red grapes in a good year. We have 48 blueberry bushes and a columnar apple that isn’t very columnar and inundates us with bushels of excellent apples every fall. We also have what must be the world’s largest rhubarb. I divided it last fall in the hope of discouraging it somewhat. Finally, I love Chinese wisteria and have one that I’ve trained to be a small tree rather than a vine.

Karen's garden is full of mystery and intrigue. Image by Karen G. Anderson

Karen G. Anderson’s Top 4 Cozy Garden Mysteries
I’m a big fan of the Potting Shed mysteries by Marty Wingate, who used to write the garden column for the Seattle Times newspaper. In The Best-Laid Plants (2017), Wingate takes her garden-designer detective, Pru Parke, to the Cotswolds to renovate an Arts and Crafts era garden. When the inevitable body is unearthed, Parke and her husband (who is, conveniently, a retired police detective) dig in.

2. Murder by Arrangement (2015) is the fifth in Suzanne Young’s series about Edna Davies, Rhode Island herbalist and enthusiastic cook. It’s a classic New England cozy, with an older female protagonist. The gardening theme is background rather than plot. The story starts when Davies learns that her granddaughter’s new playmate is the child of a woman long suspected of murdering her husband. Davies is inclined to ignore the juicy gossip, but when the children’s mother is implicated in a second murder, she has no choice but to investigate.

3. Moss Hysteria (2016) by Kate Collins is a great book (along with a great title). It’s part of the lively and humorous Flower Shop Mystery series. In this one, shop owner Abby Knight and her husband Marco, a private detective, have just moved into a new house and are in the midst of chaotic unpacking. When a murder occurs, the young couple are horrified to discover that the prime suspect is… their new next-door neighbour.

4. The Last Chance Olive Ranch (2017) by Susan Wittig Albert has some great information about olive ranching. But I was soon caught up in two plots: In the first, herbalist and amateur detective China Bayles is hired to teach a class on herbs at the Texas ranch, but ends up helping the hostess deal with an angry relative who is contesting her ownership of the property. The second plot follows Bayles’ husband, who may be in danger because a murderer he put behind bars has escaped from a nearby penitentiary. This one is fast-paced and a bit shivery for a cozy.