Friday, February 4, 2011

Death in the Garden: Review

Death in the Garden by Elizabeth Ironside is unlike any mystery novel I've read. It's a mystery. It's a historical novel. It's a lesson in research (both of the time period and by characters within the novel). It's a fine character study. It is a lesson in betrayals and secrets and what men and women will do to hide them. It's an example of how little people who think they are close really know about one another. And, above all, it's brilliantly written--employing flashbacks, diary entries, letters and straight up narration to tell an absolutely captivating story. The Denver Post is quoted on the front cover: "A wondrously textured, multilayered detective novel in the grand tradition, with a strikingly unusual plot." I would have to agree.

The novel shifts between the 1920s and the 1990s. In 1925 the beautiful Diana Pollexfen, former bohemian photographer and now more conventional wife to an MP, is celebrating her 30th birthday. She invites some of her oldest and closest friends to a party at their country estate, but the celebrations end with the tragic death of her husband, George. He has been poisoned by a cocktail that contains more photographic chemicals than alcohol.

The book opens with this line: Today at half-past two in the afternoon I was acquitted of the murder of my husband. Not since Rebecca has an opening sentence grabbed my attention and stayed in my imagination. Opening with this statement from Diana's diary, the first section of the book gives the background of the birthday party guests and describes the events leading up to George's death. The rest of the book takes us sixty years into the future. Diana's great-niece Helena is also turning 30 and finds herself spending her birthday at her great-aunt's house--making arrangements for Diana's funeral. In the course of going through her great-aunts papers and diaries she finds the diary with that first line. Helena decides that she needs to know if her great-aunt really was innocent or just had a good defense lawyer before she is willing to take possession of the home and her inheritance from her aunt.

The rest of the book finds Helena and her cousins looking for living witnesses, reading through the diaries, discovering letters and even a short story--all in the effort to try and solve the mystery that was left open with Diana's acquittal. Ironside neatly dovetails events in Helena's life with the 60-year-old mystery and uses the modern events to help Helena discover the truth. She also learns that the truth may have a terrible cost.

I was absolutely hooked on this book from the first line. The mystery has an interesting twist--one that has been employed before, but it is so well done that I didn't mind. Near-perfect in period detail, characterization, use of clues and wrap-up. It is definitely a book that I will want to read again--if only for the beautiful writing. Four and a half stars.


Yvette said...

This sounds good, Bev! I've never heard of this author. I'll have to see about getting a copy. Thanks for the great review. :)

Bev Hankins said...

@Yvette: I found this one at our library's used/donated/discarded bookstore. I'd never heard of her before either. I find the most interesting books there. Sometimes I wind up re-donating because something sounded oh-so-good at the time wound up being not-so-all-that when I read it. But overall--more treasures than not.

J F Norris said...

I have seen Ironsides' books in the local Barnes & Noble and I keep thinking I ought to try one. But this is the first time anyone has truly enticed me. Not even the blurb on the book could convince to buy the book. This particularly book reminds me of an excellent crime fiction writer - Robert Goddard. He writes EXACTLY the same kind of book. Switches between time periods in the narrative, does incredible historical research, creates fully fleshed, intensely interesting characters, and has an literate, clean prose style. Ironside has just made my list new writers to read. Thanks, Bev!

P.S. Hope you're faring well in these post blizzard/ice storm days. Manage to get out yet?