Gardening can be murder

Gardening can be murder

This is a book for gardeners who love reading, and in particular for gardeners who like a good murder mystery.


Gardening can be murder – by Marta McDowell
Published by Timber Press 205pp

It started out as an article green-fingered New York writer Marta McDowell contributed in 2002 to the quarterly gardening journal, Hortus (a fantastic publication if you like good garden writing), under the title: Malus aforethought. Great headline!

McDowell flags up a whole host of mysteries that feature gardens, gardeners or detectives who are garden lovers. Many are written by authors who themselves are passionate gardeners, as we discover towards the end.

She starts with one of the first professional crime fighters – Sergeant Cuff – in the Wilkie Collins novel, The Moonstone (written in 1868 – 19 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in print).

I’ve probably seen a TV adaptation of this at some point but have subsequently been enjoying the audio book on Audible, principally because clever Sgt Cuff (we never learn his first name) is a rose lover. He arrives on the scene distracted by the gravel paths between the rose beds, insisting they should be grass, and regularly singing under his breath – The Last Rose of Summer.

McDowell flags up how his passion for roses was in keeping with the time – this was only 10 years after the first national rose show, at a time when the plant’s popularity was in the ascendancy.

The book is beautifully illustrated and an easy read. But it is frustrating in two respects. The first is that many of the authors are American and the books are not so easy to find over here. The second is… well, I’ve already got a huge pile of books I want to read. Now it’s got bigger. A lot bigger!

Read this book with a pencil, to highlight all the various books you will want to check out. Oxfam online, Amazon Kindle, Abe books, World of Books, Audible, your local library… you’ll find yourself trying to track down cheap copies everywhere.

My list now includes books by authors whose books I should have read sooner (Dorothy L. Sayers’, Rex Stout, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh). There are some I know but want to read more of (Ellis Peters’ Cadfael and a couple of Agatha Christie Poirots). Finally, there are some modern American authors – I’m particularly intrigued by Cynthia Riggs’s 92-year-old sleuth, Victoria Trumbull.

And then there are the plants I want, just for the stories they tell of fictional characters who end up pushing up the daisies from their use. Foxglove (digitalis) already makes an appearance in my garden each year. I wasn’t aware of the murderous potential of rhubarb (leaves, not stalks, in case you’re worried). And aconite is one I’m toying with.

McDowell offers some useful lists at the end of the book. A good accompaniment to this is A is for Arsenic, by Kathryn Harkup, a British chemist who has analysed all the Agatha Christie texts to check out the poisons she used.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.