Murder by the Book, Rex Stout

Returning to Nero Wolfe, especially in summer when reading must be squeezed between travels and visitors, is irresistible. He’s comfort food for the brain. You know Wolfe is sure to infuriate Inspector Cramer; you know Archie Goodwin will notice any good looking woman as he races about the city picking up clues.

In Murder by the Book, three seemingly unrelated murders have been committed. Thinking his characteristic deep thoughts, Wolfe ascertains they are somehow connected to an unpublished manuscript. The law clerk who wrote the novel, the editor who rejected it and the typist who typed it – all dead.

Nero Wolfe fans know the great seventh of a ton man loves his orchids above all else, except maybe Fritz Brenner’s mouth-watering meals. So it’s amazing that he reluctantly agrees when Archie says he needs a boatload of orchids to romance all the female employees of a certain law firm.  Archie cuts 48 orchids for 16 women, boxes them up in tissue and ribbons and adds the following note to each box.

“These orchids are so rare that they can’t be bought. I picked them for you. If you care to know why, phone me at PE3-1212.                     Archie Goodwin”

The dinner for 16 women in Wolfe’s townhouse on West 35th street begins the meandering search that leads as far as Los Angles and a fourth murder before a trap can be set for the killer. Nero Wolfe’s willingness to sacrifice some rare Cattleyas, Brassos and Laelios and Archie Goodwin’s canny courage combine to nab their man. When this private detective is on the case, no perpetrator is safe and no reader is disappointed.

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The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

 

Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, is delightful in its deceptiveness. It is charming to read, but how much more entertaining to view on stage. It’s not about gardening; it’s about the importance of appearance in the Victorian world. Shallow as a ditch in a drought, the characters earnestly follow the suffocating rules of the time while feeling no guilt in pursuing secret lives.

Act two does take place in a garden. Here are Gwendolen and Cecily, the two objects of Jack and Algernon’s romantic interest conversing in the country house garden. They are quite peeved and at very civilized war with each other, thinking they have become engaged to the same man.

 

Gwendolen. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.

Cecily. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.

Gwendolen. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

Cecily. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.

Gwendolen. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

Cecily. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

The entire play is entertainingly about nothing. Mix up after mix up confuses everyone. Probably the mix up that started it all occurred years earlier when baby Jack was found in a handbag in Victoria Station. Until his origin is solved he is unacceptable as a husband to any woman of a certain social class.

Then there is the strange hang-up of the girls, Gwendolen and Cecily. Each one feels she could only be happily married to a husband with the trustworthy name of Ernest.  Hence the play on words in the title, as earnest dishonesty is the driving force in both the Jack and Algernon characters.

Not to worry, in true comedic tradition, all knots are tied, mix ups un-mixed. The package delivered with Wilde’s unmatched verbal repartee.

Deader Homes & Gardens, Joan Hess

 

She’s looking for a new house to start her life with her new hunky husband, Police Chief Peter Rosen and her moody teenage daughter, Caron. This is number eighteen in the Claire Malloy murder mystery series.

If Claire is anything, she’s outrageously persistent in getting what she wants. She wants a house in Hollow Valley that may or may not be for sale. The owner has died mysteriously, Claire’s real estate agent has suddenly disappeared, the extended family of the dead owner is embroiled in litigation with the dead owner’s lover and heir, who literally expires at her feet. And she still wants the house.

Set in the fictional college town of Farberville, Arkansas, the mystery revolves around the extended, dysfunctional Hollow family. They’ve owned the land for generations and seem intent on keeping it and their thriving nursery business for themselves only. A string of deaths convinces Claire that she, not the police, must solve the murders if she is to get the house of her dreams.  She notices a constant caravan of delivery trucks leaving the nursery under cover of night. Could there be something illicit in the deliveries? Could the real estate agent’s estranged husband be a murderer? Could any one of the oddball Hollows have a reason for murder? What is everyone hiding? Claire, who maybe has read too many mysteries in the book store she operates, comes up with all manner of outlandish theories before the truth almost zonks her out.

This is a quick, cozy read, conveyed with tongue in cheek. The author’s sense of humor may not be for everyone.

Nemesis, Agatha Christie

Nemesis, Agatha Christie

Chapter nine of this Miss Marple mystery is titled “Polygonum Baldschuanicum.”  Known as fleeceflower, this invasive woody vine grows rapidly, covering buildings or the ground with masses of foliage and flowers. Miss Marple is taken on a tour of the garden of three sisters when they come upon the vine. Miss Marple notes its characteristics.

“’Very quick growing, I think, isn’t it? Very useful really if one wants to hide any tumbledown building or anything ugly of that kind.’”

“The mound in front of her was certainly thickly covered with the all-enveloping green and white flowering plant. It was, as Miss Marple well knew, a kind of menace to anything else that wanted to grow. Polygonum covered everything, and covered it in a remarkably short time.”

Miss Marple tucks this piece of information into her brain. She may need it later as she has been sent on a mysterious errand by a man she once helped solve a crime in a previous book, A Caribbean Mystery. He has reached out from the grave to entice her into solving one last murder. He wants justice for his son who languishes in prison for the murder of a girl who was to be his bride.

Amos Rafiel has given Jane Marple the gift of a tour of The Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. He has not forgotten that she is an inescapable agent of nemesis. On the tour she will gradually sniff out clues from the other people he will put in her way. If she solves the mystery within one year, another gift of twenty thousand pounds is hers. She, as usual, is intrigued by the chase, not the money.

For her last Miss Marple mystery, Christie has built a tragic story. How is it that someone can be killed because of love? The reader is left to ponder that. As for Jane Marple, at her age she can appreciate the sadness but is practical enough to go on with her new found riches. Mr. Rafiel’s lawyer advises her:

“’You could ask your bank manager’s advice, you know, Miss Marple. It really is – one never knows when one wants something for a rainy day.’

‘The only thing I shall want for a rainy day will be my umbrella,’ said Miss Marple.”

The Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie

 

When you get an Agatha Christie mystery in your hands, you just can’t stop until the last page. Murder at the Vicarage was her first Jane Marple whodunit. The prose, written in 1930, is as crisp and insightful about human nature now as it was then. What does gardening have to do with this story? Well, only that Jane Marple observes the goings-on from her garden.

“Miss Marple always sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses, can always be turned to account.”

Not only does she see everything that goes on in the village of St. Mary Mead; her superior reasoning powers allow her to make sense out of all the whys and wherefores. It is her hobby she explains.

“’You see,’ she began at last, ‘living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied – and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus this, species that…. It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgment and find that one is right.’”

Colonel Protheroe is thoroughly disliked by everyone in the village. His wife and daughter can’t stand him. The Vicar, even as a man of the cloth, merely tolerates him. The Colonel could care less and quite loudly offends everyone in his path. That’s why when he is found shot to death at the Vicar’s own desk, there are way too many villagers who could have done the deed. Abominably rude Inspector Slack works hard to solve the case, but his blustering instincts lead him off course. Of course it is quiet, thoughtful Miss Marple who eventually convinces the Vicar of what really has been going on. For a sleepy little village, there’s a lot going on. Amateur sleuthing runs circles around the professionals. I couldn’t guess who did it before Miss Marple made the big reveal. But then I didn’t care. I would prefer holding out the suspense as long as possible. It’s such fun to pop in on Miss Marple’s world.

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman

The Red Garden

If this is a novel, the main character is the town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. Here are fourteen interconnected tales that stand on their own as short stories. They all take place in rural Massachusetts; the first, “The Bear’s House,” set in 1750 Blackwell.

The reviewers call Hoffman’s prose magical realism; she has a beautiful way with words that brings to mind folk-tales and the fairy tale tradition. Hallie Brady figures in the first story, as she, along with her bumbling husband, is the founder of this town snuggled in the Berkshire Mountains.  Hallie actually loves a bear whose milk keeps the town inhabitants alive in their first bitter winter in the wilderness.

The rest of the stories progress chronologically through more than 200 years, as descendants of the original settlers tell their stories. Through it all the garden remains red and produces only red fruits and vegetables. Each tale is mesmerizing, but leaves one not so much with a remembrance of the individual characters but with a magical sense of walking above the ground through a dream along the Eel River, the red garden and the historic town.

One actually believes that breast milk could be harvested nightly from a hibernating mother bear, that a beautiful woman could transform herself into an eel, that a woman from Brooklyn could cunningly poison her abusive husband, hightail it to Blackwell and reinvent herself as the town schoolteacher. Love, understanding and the confounding things people do pervades all.

As far as gardening, it’s an organic theme through the stories. In the 1846 story, Owl and Mouse, Emily creates a garden for a blind man. Emily recognized wild plants the way others would recognize old friends.

“She found peonies, quince, snowy phlox. She dug up two small rosebushes, one with tea-scented flowers, the other with a scent that reminded her of burned sugar. She pilfered lavender, stargazer lilies, basil, rosemary, sage. She carried her loot back to the house, then went out again, this time to the woods. The dog dutifully waited while she found what she wanted. Four o’clocks, sweet William, lemon mint, swamp pink, tuberose, trillium, marsh clematis, barberry, witch hazel, mallow, honeysuckle, loosestrife. Emily took only scented plants, specimens that announced themselves with their odor. Each flower would be a part of a blind man’s garden, a thicket of fragrance in which even the poorest weed might be miraculous.”

Hoffman has created a place out of her imagination that cradles her characters, gives them authenticity and makes the reader believe in this make believe world. In the magic there is tragedy, pain, the beauty of nature and an unearthly vision. Worth reading.

The Potted Gardener, M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener

Drop a harrowing murder in her neighborhood and Agatha Raisin puts her “pugnacious face” and “bearlike eyes” to good use. This hilarious, mystery-solving heroine is competitive to a fault.

But her unattractive character flaws only endear her to the villagers. She has a tendency to cheat in contests. She once bought a cake from a bakery to enter in a baking contest. She got caught and the locals went on loving her. In The Potted Gardener, part of the Agatha Raisin mystery series; she hires a nursery to deliver a pre-planted garden to compete in the village garden tour. They still love her because there’s something good in this plain, middle-aged, stocky woman.

Agatha is a successful public relations executive who has retired to the village of Carsley in the English Cotswolds. She has a teenage crush on her handsome, retired military neighbor, James Lacey. To her chagrin, another recently arrived outsider to the village has claimed James’ attention. She has no hope of competing with glamorous Mary Fortune who has a figure to die for, glorious blond hair and talent in gardening, baking and all things social. She seems to be everything that Agatha is not. Our heroine suspects a face lift, but reluctantly decides to give up any hope of catching James’ eye and befriends the perplexing Mary.

After a slew of vicious village garden desecrations, James and Agatha find Mary Fortune ghoulishly murdered in her own conservatory. Even though the local police warn Agatha not to get involved, her competitiveness and pride require her to solve the puzzle of Mary Fortune. This is a quick and amusing read. Who knew gardening could be so dangerous.