It seems green fingers can be deadly. As deadly as a pruning knife to the throat. That’s what Kate and Henry Theobald found on the first evening of their visit to friends in the quaint English village of Ashworth in Wessex. Ashworth was known as a village of roses because it housed two fine rose nurseries and two well-known amateur rose growers. One grower, Nick Bell, was the victim of the nasty deed.
Kate’s a newspaper woman and Henry a lawyer. She sees a hot story in the awful business and Henry is ready with legal expertise to back her up. The local gossip lets them in on Nick’s two passions: breeding roses with the goal of creating the first blue rose and bedding women with another sadistic set of goals. This information broadens the number of possible suspects to almost everyone in the village. But that’s no deterrent for Kate. She does her research, puts her health at risk, annoys the local constable and gets the scoop ahead of everyone else on the beat.
This cozy mystery was written over forty years ago. It’s eye-opening to see the difference forty years makes in acceptable social mores.
“She was received gladly at the office. Butch patted her bottom approvingly and told her the editor was back and had signed the chit for her bonus. ‘Buy you all a drink,’ she offered. So several went round to the Press Club for half-an-hour’s amiable conversation and a number of large gins.”
In pursuit of their villain, Kate and Henry learn a lot about rose pedigrees and the complicated, labor- intensive, exacting work of hybridizing them. I wonder if anyone ever did produce a true-blue rose.
To all garden-friendly fiction lovers, I hope 2018 was a good year for you in your reading and gardening. I’m starting 2019 by connecting my garden-themed fiction blog to my garden writing website. It’s called Greenish Thoughts and is about gardening on the Eastern Shore in particular and gardening life in general. It is not a how-to, but merely reflections that occur as I try to learn more about plants and planting and the pleasures of the garden. You will find a connection to it at the bottom of the side bar under blogroll. Happy reading and gardening in 2019.
Larkspur is graceful and elegant. But it can kill you. Also known as delphinium, a decoction of all parts of the plant can do in a victim within a few hours. First there’s neuro-muscular paralysis and then respiratory failure. Native to our western states, cattlemen have been wary of it for years. They keep their herds clear of it in the spring when the young plants and seeds are most toxic.
Larkspur is a fast- read mystery set in northern California told in first person by Lark, the owner of a bookstore named Larkspur. Funny coincidence. Lark’s mother is a well-known poet and friend of the famous poet, Dai Llewellyn, who is the very public victim at his annual summer house party. He sips Compari and chokes to death in front of his guests. Lark and Jay, her policeman boyfriend, try heroically to revive him. A lethal dose of larkspur is later found in his drink.
Since larkspur grows all over the place and a large group is in attendance at the party, everyone is a suspect. In the next few days, Lark and Jay find time is not on their side, as more bodies fall. Llewellyn has a secret history of affairs with men and women, a dysfunctional extended family and lots of money. Many have a motive and the killer is rather clever.
Starting out slow with a confusingly large cast of characters and relationships, the mystery becomes a page-turner toward the end as they uncover more disconcerting facts. Jay gives his take on the crime.
“’The related plant, monkshood, would have produced a quicker, more potent poison, so the choice of delphinium was plainly deliberate. I’d say offhand that the killer is either mentally unbalanced or a sociopath with a sadistic sense of humor.’ He let his gaze move leisurely from one guest to the next, taking them all in.”
The race to the killer is on with Lark and Jay’s romantic interest in each other adding spice to the tale.
There is such a thing as a non-fiction novel. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is just such a thing. The events in this story did happen. Jim Williams really was tried four times in the State of Georgia for the murder of Danny Hansford. The cast is a chorus of insanely nutty characters: a foul-mouthed black drag queen, a female voodoo doctor, a charming lawyer who holds a perennial open house (there is always someone cutting hair in the kitchen) and breaks more laws than his clients and a gay antiques dealer who manages his antique business from jail, refusing to let murder charges defeat him. But the true star of the novel is the elegant garden city of Savannah.
James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, personally designed the square layout of the city.
“In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. ’The thing I like best about the squares,’ Miss Harty said, ‘is that cars can’t cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace. The squares are our little oases of tranquility.’”
And traffic does flow at a leisurely pace. This is good because, according to the author, Savannahians believe road trips through their city require serious alcohol-laced hydration.
The people who loved this city tried their best to maintain an oasis of southern life-past. The story is littered with examples of outsiders who tried to update the city. The locals would have none of it. They liked their social traditions, especially where formal dress was a requirement.
The weather itself, warm and leisurely, helped sustain the slow pace Savannah is known for.
“Camellias, jonquils, and paper whites had bloomed in December and January. Wisteria and redbuds had followed, and then in mid-March the azaleas burst forth in gigantic pillows of white, red and vermilion. White dogwood blossoms floated like clouds of confectioner’s sugar above the azaleas. The scent of honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and the first magnolia blossoms were already beginning to perfume the air.”
In an afterward, the author uses garden terms to describe this unique city.
“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”
Berendt’s non-fiction novel may depict a languid southern city. His book is anything but. It’s a page-turner of oddballs, turmoil, gossip and, of course, good and evil.
I was re-reading The Good Earth for personal enjoyment after I recently visited The Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Buck’s incredibly accomplished life intrigued me and I wanted to remind myself why this story won a Pulitzer Prize in Letters and the author a Nobel Prize for Literature when she was only beginning.
Written in the manner of a fable, The Good Earth is both classic and universal. Wang Lung is a man with the vices and the prejudices of his era and his culture. Yet he draws on our empathy. His overwhelming belief that the land is of utmost importance may have renewed relevance in the 2018 world of global warming.
Droughts and floods plague his land. Yet he knows from his young life of poverty to his old age of wealth, the land is the source of his life. That is not exactly gardening, but it has a connection. Gardeners also feel this deep connection to the earth, a connection that is much more than growing pretty plants.
On his wedding day to O-lan, Wang Lung thinks of the good earth with superstition.
“There would be no rain this day, but within a few days, if this wind continued, there would be water. It was good. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit.”
When he and his family are driven by drought to servitude in the south of China, he thinks only of his land back home.
“He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest.”
After his mid-life crisis of love-sickness, he turns to the land for healing.
“Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat…he himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff, soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it and not for any necessity.”
In the end when he feels himself dying, he turns back to the land.
“But of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.”
The Good Earth was banned for years in China. Buck was denied permission to a accompany President Nixon when he opened trade with China. Yes, she drew a brutal picture of peasant life in pre-revolutionary China. But the story rises above a picture of one time and one place in human history. Its universality lies in the meaning and tragedy of life in any time and any place.
This is a haunting historical novel set in a symbolic, biblical garden invoking comparison to the Garden of Eden. The time and local is Ferrara, Italy on the eve of World War II. The Finzi-Continis are a Jewish family of aristocratic means, purposely separate from the other Jews of Ferrara. Their garden is a vast, walled enclosure not easily penetrated. The anonymous narrator gains access as a young university student and falls hopelessly in love with Micol, the beautiful Finzi-Continis daughter. He’s been invited to play tennis in the Finzi-Continis garden. Because the new racist laws prevent Jews from socializing with Christians at the local tennis club, Micol and her brother Alberto host a regular tennis party in their walled garden for their friends.
The garden is some twenty acres with winding paths that the narrator and Micol and Alberto explore on bicycle, all the while Micol tellling stories about the garden, mesmerizing the narrator. There’s a group of seven tall desert palms toward which she feels great tenderness.
“’There they are, my seven old men,’ she might say. ‘Look at their venerable beards!’ Really – she would insist – didn’t they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance. What “holiness” in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly! They look like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts.
Though Micol loves the trees of her garden, she has mixed feelings about the narrator. She alternately encourages him and rejects him, leaving him flustered and humiliated.
Though not in the least concerned with the art of gardening, “before-the-fall Garden of Eden symbolism” permeates the story. The family has tried to wall themselves in, away from the other Jews and from the coming cloud of Nazism. Micol, true to her family’s tradition, can only see herself as separate from Jews like the narrator. Bassani leaves her with her pride intact. He ends his story before she and her family are subsumed into the far-reaching annihilation of the Holocaust as foretold in chapter one. It’s a hopeless love story embedded in a tragic time.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made into an award winning film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.
I was reading Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi when I came upon a reference to Lamb House at Rye in Sussex. E. F. Benson lived there from 1916 until his death in 1940. In his comedy of manners Mapp and Lucia novels, Benson made Lamb House and its garden-room the fictional residence of Miss Elizabeth Mapp, calling the house Mallards in the fictional village of Tilling.
When Perenyi quoted Benson’s description of the Lamb House garden, I had to look up Mapp and Lucia. I was not disappointed.
Queen Lucia, the first novel in the series, introduces Emmeline Lucas, aka ’Lucia.’ Calling her pretentious, is being very kind. Here is Benson’s description of her garden in the village of Riseholme where we first meet her.
“A yew hedge, bought entire from a neighbouring farm, and transplanted with solid lumps of earth and indignant snails around its roots, separated the small oblong garden from the road, and cast monstrous shadows of the shapes into which it was cut, across the little lawns inside. Here, as was only right and proper, there was not a flower to be found save such as were mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare; indeed it was called Shakespeare’s garden, and the bed that ran below the windows of the dining-room was Ophelia’s border, for it consisted solely of those flowers which that distraught maiden distributed to her friends when she should have been in a lunatic asylum. Mrs. Lucas often reflected how lucky it was that such institutions were unknown in Elizabeth’s day, or that, if known, Shakespeare artistically ignored their existence. Pansies, naturally, formed the chief decoration – though there were some very flourishing plants of rue. Mrs. Lucas always wore a little bunch of them when in flower, to inspire her thoughts, and found them wonderfully efficacious. Round the sundial, which was set in the middle of one of the squares of grass between which a path of broken paving-stones led to the front door, was a circular border, now, in July, sadly vacant, for it harboured only the spring-flowers enumerated by Perdita. But the first day every year when Perdita’s border put forth its earliest blossom was a delicious anniversary, and the news of it spread like wildfire through Mrs. Lucas’s kingdom, and her subjects were very joyful, and came to salute the violet or daffodil, or whatever it was.”
Tell me that garden is not pretentious.
We meet Elizabeth Mapp in the second novel, aptly titled Miss Mapp.
“She sat, on this hot July morning, like a large bird of prey at the very convenient window of her garden-room, the ample bow of which formed a strategical point of high value…This she did from a side window of the garden-room which commanded the strawberry beds; she could sit quite close to that, for it was screened by the large-leaved branches of a fig tree and she could spy unseen.”
These two outrageous women are brought together in Mapp and Lucia when Mrs. Lucas spots an advertisement for a house for rent in Tilling. Miss Mapp shows her the garden.
“’My little plot,’ said Miss Mapp. ‘Very modest, as you see, three quarters of an acre at the most, but well screened. My flower beds: sweet roses, tortoiseshell butterflies. Rather a nice clematis. My little Eden, I call it, so small but so well beloved.’ ‘ Enchanting!’ said Lucia, looking round the garden before mounting the steps up to the garden-room door. There was a very green and well-kept lawn, set in bright flower beds. A trellis at one end separated it from a kitchen garden beyond, and round the rest ran high brick walls, over which peered the roofs of other houses. In one of these walls was cut a curved archway with a della Robbia head above it…..’My little secret garden… When I am in here and shut the door, I mustn’t be disturbed for anything less than a telegram. A rule of the house; I am very strict about it.’”
Both Mapp and Lucia have an insatiable need to conquer and command. They are petty, snobby, gossipy and thoroughly entertaining.
Though based on 1920’s British society when the upper middle class had time for tea, golf and garden parties, these novels are timeless. Benson is a genius at skewering his characters with his poison pen, creating ludicrous and hilarious results.
Sadly, a year after Benson’s death a German bomb destroyed the garden-room. Now Lamb House is part of the British National Trust and open for visitors. Besides being home to Henry James and E. F. Benson, it was Rumer Godden’s home while she wrote over 30 books.