Ladies of the Garden Club, Gloria Alden. Willow Knoll Publishing, 2012. Southington, Ohio. Paper $14.95. ISBN: 978-1-4942952-4-0. 307 pages.
Many traditional mysteries are set in villages. Gloria Alden’s take on life in the small town of Portage Falls in northeast Ohio is portrayed in her Catherine Jewell garden series intimately and accurately, and includes both the town’s ugliness and its admirable qualities. Her books, and this third one is her best yet, in my opinion, remind me of the movies made during the forties and early fifties, with their focus on small town life and its profoundly human qualities, movies like “I Remember Mama” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
It’s not that there’s no evil in Portage Falls, but that the whole world of the novel is fully human. Even those who do evil to their family or neighbors are human, and goodness, basic decency, and kindness continue to dominate this landscape.
Catherine offers a workshop at the local showplace, Elmwood Gardens, on poisonous plants, many of which grow in people’s gardens, without their awareness of which ones can be poisonous if eaten. I learned that the leaves and stems of tomato and potato plants, which belong to the nightshade family, are poisonous, even the little green spots and eyes on the potatoes. Certain mushrooms, of course, and one, the beautiful but deadly Fly Amanita, becomes the cause of death in the first garden club member who is poisoned. Castor beans are from another poisonous plant and are used to kill another garden club lady.
New characters in this third book in the series include the unhappy T.J. Carter, who wants to be a boy and tries to keep her name Tiffany Jane a secret. She’s spending the summer with her grandparents because her parents are getting a divorce. Catherine makes friends with her and encourages T.J. to play with her dog Alvin. T.J. and Alvin bond quickly.
Boris Hajde is another new and interesting character, who has Asperger’s Syndrome (high-functioning autism) and lives alone with his pet buzzards and his collection of dark-leaved plants like Black Wizard Dahlias, and Edge of Night and Black Forest Calla lilies.
Among the garden club ladies are Louise Brogden, who has discovered Feng Shui and wants to clear up everyone else’s clutter as well as her own. She goes so far as to give away her husband George’s prized comic book collection, which he rescues in time from the local bookstore before it is sold. Then there’s the bossy garden club president, Frances Fenstermaker, who doesn’t believe other people can get things done unless she personally micro- manages them.
Catherine herself is a relative newcomer to Portage Falls, and since she gave a garden workshop on poisonous plants, when a garden club woman dies from eating the highly toxic Fly Amanita, which grows near Catherine’s Roses in Thyme garden business, and the victim is found by Catherine in her greenhouse, some townsfolks suspect her to be the murderer, including Joe Salcone, who works with Catherine’s friend, Police Chief John MacDougal. Catherine is afraid John suspects her, too. The kindergarten teacher, Polly Popcorn, also had a rough time when gossip circulated a few years earlier, accusing her of smoking marijuana and having wild parties. She could have lost her job if the teachers’ union officer, George Brogden, hadn’t cleared her of this gossip.
I enjoyed all the characters and their doings and attitudes, and I was glad to read of the building love between Catherine and John. I do like a little romance in a mystery book. The plot is nicely twisted, and suspense builds as more garden club members die. Catherine can’t believe anyone who attended her poison plant workshop could be mean enough to kill anyone. This concept of suspense is made clear in Elizabeth George’s Write Away, i.e., that we readers care about the characters so much that we want to know not only the meaning of what has already happened but what might happen next, and so keep reading.
My Russian friend, Mikhail Bazankov, believes that village life is the best place for “building the human soul.” We might say, “for the human soul to grow and flourish.” Here the village world is threatened but comes through, yes, with loss, but stronger. The bonds between the good characters sustain the villagers as they have to accept their losses, and even weak people, like the Ralph Derryberry from the first two books, who is known by all the villagers to be lazy, using his bad back as an excuse so as not to work, can still learn and change because of the basic environment of caring and accepting the differences between people.
I see this happening in my little town, and I believe it to be an international phenomenon–alive also in the books of Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, and many other mystery writers, who are familiar with the “homegrown evil” and also understand and value the “homegrown goodness” found in villages and small towns.
Gloria in her study-library, with her dog Maggie
Gloria Alden taught third grade for twenty years. She loved teaching, but wanted to have more time for writing, and much of her retirement years has been spent that way. Her published short stories include “Cheating on Your Wife Can Get You Killed,” winner of the 2011 Love is Murder contest and published in Crimespree Magazine; “Mincemeat is for Murder” appearing in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, “The Professor’s Books” in the FISH TALES Anthology; and “The Lure of the Rainbow” in FISH NETS, the newest Guppy Anthology.
“Once Upon a Gnome”appears in STRANGELY FUNNY and “Norman’s Skeleton’s” in ALL HALLOWS EVIL. Her Catherine Jewell mystery novels are The Blue Rose, Daylilies for Emily’s Garden, and Ladies of the Garden Club, which came out in late 2013. She also has a middle-grade book, THE SHERLOCK HOLMES DETECTIVE CLUB, based on a writing activity her students did at Hiram Elementary School. In addition to writing, she’s passionate about books, and they are rapidly taking over her home. She lives on a small farm in Southington, Ohio, with two ponies, some cats, seven hens, and her collie, Maggie. She blogs on Thursdays with Writers Who Kill.