Monday, May 21, 2012

Garden of Malice: Review

In Garden of Malice by Susan Kenney, Rosamund "Roz" Howard is an associate professor at Vassar who is looking for an extraordinary bit of research that she can publish and help her case for tenure.  She's ecstatic when she is offered the plum job of editing the diaries and letters of Lady Viola Montford-Snow.  Lady Viola was a well-known English novelist as well as the creator of gorgeous gardens at her home at Montford Abbey.  Wondering why she was chosen out of all the qualified candidates, but not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, Roz travels to England only to find that it is not exactly the ideal scholarly situation she had anticipated.

For example, her employer and Viola's son, Giles Montford-Snow is holding the letters tight to his chest--only allowing Roz to view copies, and only in his presence and in the order he deems proper.  Giles is intent on maintaining his mother's memory exactly as is, just as he has made every effort to keep Montford Abbey and the surrounding gardens exactly as they were when Viola was alive.  And he's not about to let anything interfere with that.  He is, however, counting on secrets to be revealed in his mother's papers--secrets that will help sell books and, ultimately, help fund the continued existence of Viola's precious gardens.  Roz chafes under his absolute control of the materials.

Added to the situation, someone fears the secrets contained in Viola's letters and will do anything to prevent those secrets from coming out.  A campaign of intimidation is begun--first by destroying several of the gardens and then things begin to get more serious.  Giles is found unconscious after a run-in with a deadly weed-killer and Florence, one of the many relatives and off-shoots of the Montford-Snow clan, falls prey to poisoned tea.  Roz receives a message telling her that she is next...but she is determined to stick it out and find out who is responsible and what secrets Viola's papers hold.  But will she live to tell the tale?

This is an obvious debut novel.  Rather heavy-handed in its attempts to create atmosphere, it never quite comes off.  One should be just as interested as Roz in finding out what the "big secret" is, but one isn't.  And when the secret is revealed...well, it's rather a let-down.  It just doesn't seem to be as big a deal as we're led to believe.   And rather a lot is made of Roz being able to trust a certain character....but there really isn't any reason why he should be more trustworthy than anyone else.  Later, he has an alibi of sorts for some of the mischief--but early on, he could be just as guilty as any of the others.  But, of course, Roz just knows that he's okay.

On the one hand, Roz seems to be a good scholar, asking a lot of the right questions about the materials.  But then, she misses all the questions she ought to be asking about the situation she finds herself in.  She really ought to be questioning what people are telling her and what she overhears a heck of a lot more.  Where's that inquisitive brain when it comes to the strange circumstances she finds herself in the midst of?

I expected to like this one more than I did.  I had previously read Graves in Academe by Kenney and thought that Roz Howard showed real promise as a character.  I didn't realize till I began reading this one that Garden was the debut.  I've since seen ratings of the third novel One Fell Sloop and it seems that there is little improvement.  Two and a half stars....and I don't believe I'll be looking for that third book.

Perhaps the habit of intrigue is catching--in the air or the walls.  Like secret passages, only in the mind. [Alan Stewart] (p. 85)

Did you know a good belly laugh can bring a person's blood pressure down thirty points in a matter of seconds? I've often wondered if that were the basis of comic relief in tragedy, or the reason why people invariably giggle at horror shows. It's a much nicer way of letting go than screeching hysterics, but then I suspect you're about as hysterical as Whistler's mother.  I'm quite sure you never screech. [Alan Stewart] (p. 142)

Sometimes I think I'm suffering from a permanent case of jet lag. Most of the time I feel as though I'm hearing only half the conversation, and the rest is going on by mental telepathy or osmosis or something, and I'm the only one who's missing the right equipment. The auditory equivalent of trying to read between the lines. [Roz Howard] (p. 147)

Ah, fair Rosamund. Books. I doubt whether anything most of us write should be taken precisely as read. [Stewart] (p. 150)

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