Green Evidence: A Marta McDowell Book Review

by - October 26, 2023

Poisonous plants, sharp tools, shady corners and ready-made burial sites are all mainstays in garden-themed mysteries, but what is it about a garden that entices authors to incorporate it into their plot? Marta McDowell explores this connection in her latest book, Gardening Can Be Murder: How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, And Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers.

After a successful corporate career, McDowell took her love for gardening to the next level by taking continuing education courses at the New York Botanical Garden and eventually teaching there. In her landscape history and horticulture classes she said that she is able to share her love of gardening with so many different people.

Spending time gardening and writing about gardening led her to a fun fact: Emily Dickinson was a gardener. As an avid reader, this fact interested McDowell and led her to the parallels between writers and gardens.

With the advice of a family member who worked as a literary agent, McDowell knew she had to make her name known. She began pitching to magazines and booking public speaking events which ultimately led to a British garden journal called Hortus. They published a 4,000-word piece from McDowell titled “With Malus Aforethought”, which she calls a bad horticultural pun (Malus meaning apple in botanical Latin). Those 4,000 words ultimately led to Gardening Can Be Murder.

The first book in the genre she recalls reading is Mulch by Ann Ripley. Amateur gardener and housewife Louise Eldridge has big plans for her family's new Sylvan Valley home, situated among the flower of suburban Washington, D.C., society. Some Japanese iris here, some skunk cabbage there… and her own cozy cabin for her horticultural writings. But barely has she turned the topsoil when her organic mulching unearths the unidentifiable remains of a murder victim. Suddenly her elegant garden is a crime scene blighted by garish yellow police tape.

It was the first in the genre that McDowell added to her shelf, and before long her bookcase needed more room for more garden murder mysteries. While the books continued to pile up, it wasn’t until the global pandemic that she began writing this book. Her previous books involved many hours researching archives, but with that off the table during lockdown, she researched murder mystery novels instead.

“This was a weird book for me because rather than writing about one author, I was writing about dozens of authors,” she said. “I decided because there it was staring at me, we’ve got detectives and suspects and motives, means, setting… I could use all of that. Then I just had to decide how much I wanted to talk about each thing, which was determined by how long it interested me.”

Gardening Can Be Murder is the first book to explore the many surprising horticultural connections in the mystery genre. McDowell introduces readers to the detectives and scene of the crime, then explores the motive, means and clues before gathering the suspects and solving the case of why gardening can be murder. She also shares her conversations with modern day writers such as Ruth Ware, Karen Hugg and Cynthia Riggs, who use their own gardens to find creativity.

She said that at one point she had devoured so many books in the genre that she wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in the correlations. Thankfully, she has a wonderful group of friends who aren’t afraid to tell her if something is boring.

The last piece of the book was illustration, and McDowell’s frequent collaborator, Yolanda V. Fundora, was up for the challenge. After meeting at an art show, Fundora has illustrated many of McDowell’s books, usually a mix of period images and contemporary photographs. This time, she wanted an Edward Gorey-inspired style, with silhouette cutout art that reminded her of Highlights For Children magazine.

“I didn’t give her much direction other than that, and she skimmed the chapters,” McDowell said. “It was fun because I didn’t really need to tell her much. I think she can read my mind at this point or we’re like sisters separated at birth.”

No matter the motive, there seems to be a deep connection between gardening and a murder mystery. Throughout the pages of Gardening Can Be Murder, Marta McDowell shares some of the greatest writers in history and reveals how horticultural themes will remain a staple of the genre for countless twisting plots to come.

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