Cozy mysteries and their link to gardening
This post first appeared on Bab's Book Bistro
Digging for clues
There's a strong link between gardening and cozy mysteries, both within the pages of the often pastoral novels and among their authors.
I often play hooky from my writing responsibilities in my garden, though I’m sure there are more efficient and scientific ways to garden than the approach I used when I moved to the Central Coast. After all, my dad had a PhD in horticulture, which essentially means he knew all the Latin names of the plants in the garden, but none of the common names. He called Lily of the Valley Convallaria. But my mom was practical. Any plant that required regular watering (beyond the expected annual rainfall in the northeastern United States) was too needy for her.
I come by my techniques naturally, much to the consternation of one of my neighbors, who drops by when I’m up to my elbows in mulch. “Pansies don’t grow here,” she sniffs as I plant my cute-faced violas.
“I’m auditioning plants,” I tell my neighbor, pointing to a few sticks that are all that remain of a plant devoured by an unseen pest. “That one failed.” It’s the process of gardening that interests me as much as the colorful results. I’m a big fan of planting so many seedlings that the weeds are starved before they grow big enough to be plucked from the soil.
What have I learned so far? Mostly that gardening in the sandy soil of the Central Coast is very different from cultivating flowers, shrubs, or vegetables in Silicon Valley. Here, I could use a plastic spoon to create a home for a seedling. There, I wielded a pickax. I also need to allow for the salty run-off that will kill plants in the drip line of an overhanging roof. Our lovely salt air condenses on the sides of buildings and pathways throughout the summer. With the first rains of the fall, all that salt is washed into the garden.
Long sunny summer days make irrigation crucial in the San Francisco Bay Area, closer to the Pacific, the dense layer of marine fog that provides our nightly dose of natural air conditioning yields nearly all the moisture my plants need—the ones that survive the audition process, that is.
Wind, sunlight, a mysterious fungus, and those hungry nocturnal pests provide additional challenges. A sheltered plant that receives morning light may thrive without watering, while a few feet away, the same plant may wither under the fierce afternoon sun and punishing wind. I’m not sure of the genus and species of the fungus that lurks in my garden beds, but some plants turn into a black squishy mess overnight while others don’t. Though I’ve consulted more than one expert and an array of garden books, that mess defies identification.
The great detectives of mystery fiction who took their agricultural pursuits as seriously as they did their study of criminology would undoubtedly turn up their noses at my haphazard approach. Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collin’s 1868 novel The Moonstone (often considered the first full-length work of detective fiction) was an avid nurturer of rosebuds. Nero Wolfe famously tended orchids. Did Sherlock Holmes harbor a secret interest in agricultural pursuits? His interest in bees suggests that he did. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple solved mysteries “with knitting and gardening” and a bit of birdwatching. Hercule Poirot received an award at a flower show in Christie’s How Does your Garden Grow, though it’s hard to imagine him getting his hands dirty with anything other than a juicy murder.
TV Gardening Mystery Rosemary and Thyme debuted at the turn of the current century. The cozy mystery genre to this day continues to promise a bounteous harvest of gardening titles with seedy characters and rich plots. Amateur detectives include those who fuss over their home gardens until they’re distracted by murder to those who work in high-level research as academics, inventors, or entrepreneurs and become embroiled in homicide inquiries when their colleagues are implicated or detectives derail their scientific investigations.
My disorganized approach to my garden, particularly not my own main character, professional organizer Maggie McDonald, would make all these detectives, both Victorian and Modern, dispair. But that doesn’t bother me. One day I may get the soil tested. Today isn’t that day. Tomorrow probably isn’t either. I still have auditions to run. So far, the pansies have performed well.