Gardening Can Be Murder, a review by Joanna

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Gardening Can Be Murder

Marta McDowell

Published on September 5th, 2023

Timber Press

220 pages




Gardening Can Be Murder is a fascinating analysis of the ways in which horticulture has featured in, influenced, and inspired the Crime Fiction genre over the past 150 or so years, written by an American author.


“Writers write what they know, and there are many writer-gardeners. In their gardens, or gardens they research, they discover setting, motive, means, and clue. Gardening offers occupations or avocations for their detectives, suspects, and criminals. The skill of the author transforms the horticultural into the mysterious.“

Meticulously researched by an author who is both a writer and a gardener, her passion for both topics shines through. She starts with examples of detectives who garden, like Nero Wolfe and Miss Marple. Then she examines how gardens feature as murders scenes, how the lust for particular plants can be the prime motive for killing, and how horticultural wisdom can be used to source a range of poisons or gardening tools be wielded as weapons. Conversely, the detective’s knowledge of plants may also help them spot clues or untruths – I liked the explanation of the origin of the term “red herring”. Assiduously avoiding spoilers, McDowell mentions just enough about the selected works to pique one’s interest. Finally she looks at gardeners themselves and how they can appear as victim or suspect, and the most famous writer-gardeners, including of course the most famous Crime writer of them all, Agatha Christie, and a tantalising description of her house near Torquay, Greenway.
The illustrations – mostly very stylised black and white drawings – are gorgeous and would make awesome T-shirts if the author wanted to branch out (see what I did there? 🤣) into selling merchandise. The cover image is also suitably sinister and would be a good reason to buy this in hardback if available. The list of books referenced, epigraph source list, and index at the end are a comprehensive tally of the range of writers covered in the book – from The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, to A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons, by Kate Khavari in 2022. While I read a lot of mystery & crime, I had only heard of a minority of the authors mentioned, and have read even fewer, but they span the breadth of the genre, from hard-boiled to cozy, and historical to psychological. Most crime fans will find plenty of inspiration to grow their TBRs! Overall this would be of interest to anyone who loves gardening – whether that be watering a pot plant or tending multiple acres – and reading.
Thanks to NetGalley and Timber Press for the ARC.

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