Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: Death waits among the garden flowers

Review of: Garden of Lamentations
Author: Deborah Crombie
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: Purchase, Half Price Books
Grade: A

The brilliant green lawn of the gated communal garden is marred one lovely Saturday morning, an irritated resident finds, by something white, possibly a bundle of paper or plastic. Debris left by builders? Or burglars? But on closer inspection, the object begins to look disturbingly like a human shape, a young woman in a white dress. And the resident, at first ready to reprimand such untoward behavior as sleeping in a public place, soon realizes that the woman isn’t sleeping at all…

Meanwhile, London’s favorite husband and wife detective team, Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, are looking forward to a peaceful weekend with their menagerie of kids, cats, and dogs. At least, Gemma was. But Duncan’s off to the office for one last look at a case file, leaving his wife behind to deal with ballet lessons and play dates. Little does Gemma know her day is going to get much, much worse, as Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in her long-running mystery series, Garden of Lamentations, unfolds.

Because the dead woman in the garden of a posh Notting Hill neighborhood is a catalog model for one of Gemma’s friends. And although it’s not Gemma’s territory, her friend insists that she take part in the investigation.

Meanwhile, Duncan is startled to learn that a former supervisor he blames for the death of a trusted police officer, is entangled in the same web that lead to the death of an undercover agent in the previous volume of Crombie’s long-running saga. Worse, it’s a web that may endanger not only Duncan but Gemma and their growing, blended family.

I felt considerable trepidation even beginning to read a mystery series that dates back to 1993, and now includes 17 full-length books and an e-book novella, with a cast of dozens. Mystery series purist sites such as Mystery Sequels insist that readers must start at the very beginning to fully appreciate Crombie’s work.

Someday, if my stack of books to be read ever gets appreciably smaller, I may follow that advice. But first time readers, don’t fear diving in wherever you can. Crombie’s characters are delightful no matter which end of the pool you come from, and she excels at threading their backstory through the narrative in easy to swallow bites, even as she deals with an unusually complex story line, involving not only the “locked room” murder of the young model, but the decades-old police coverup of murder.

Deborah Crombie
Not that complex plots and characters are Crombie’s only accomplishments. A Texan transplanted years ago to England and Scotland before returning to her home state, she still travels back to the mother country yearly to renew her familiarity with its landscapes, accents, and concerns, and especially the neighborhoods of London where Gemma and Duncan live and work.

Visitors from this side of the pond will find Crombie’s books a guide to what’s new, what’s old, and what’s au courant, and find themselves longing to visit such locales as the Jolly Gardeners pub, “a detached building in a road of small terraced houses just off Putney High Street. Victorian or Edwardian, the place had been updated well, with bare floors and simple, mismatched furniture that set off the high ceilings and the love large windows. In winter, coal fires burned in the period fireplaces…”

Or the Red Fox Gin distillery in Shepherd’s Bush. Or the Scotch Malt Whisky Society “tucked above the Bleeding Heart Tavern.” (But beware, it doesn’t open till noon.) Or even the tiny halal take-out shop at King’s Cross, where an American might be able to get a decent cup of coffee. If such places don’t exist, they ought to.

Not that Gemma, Duncan, and their fellow police spend a great deal of time lingering in taverns or coffee shops, confronted as they are with mysteries both current and long distant to untangle. Garden of Lamentations opens with the standard disclaimer that all characters are fictional, but Crombie admits in her ending author’s note that the victim of the long-ago murder whose consequences shade the book was a real person, Stephen Lawrence, a young black man murdered in a racially-motivated attack in 1993. Although two of his attackers were convicted in 2012, the investigation into his murder continues to this day.

(Tomorrow, a mystery by an Englishman turned Texan, Mark Pryor, and the latest in his Hugh Marston series, The Paris Librarian.)

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