Author: Ann Ripley
Louise Eldrich, the wife of a secret CIA agent and a stay-at home mom, is happy with their move to Sylvan Valley in the affluent suburbs of Washington DC. An avid amateur gardener, beginning to feel the pangs of empty nest, she sets to work creating the ideal garden with organic gardening expertise, but when opening the bags of collected leaves from around the neighborhood, the dissected body of an unidentified female throws a wrench in the new home plans and leaves Louise and family as the main suspects. Meanwhile, Louise’s daughter, Janie, and her new friend from across the road decide to surreptitiously investigate the neighboring homes looking for suspects as Louise herself begins to look for clues to the missing woman’s identify.
Meanwhile Bill, her husband, has been asked by his friend, the president’s aid, to suss out the truth on Peter Hoffman, a new member of the Sylvan neighborhood and a candidate for Undersecretary of Defense. As Louise plays hostess and spy operative’s wife, the real killer is watching her every move down to her quiet time as a freelance gardening author in her secluded writing cabin.
The first in the Gardening Mysteries series by Ann Ripley, this is actually my second foray into Louise’s oddly cozy and oddly politically charged atmosphere. Dodging into the library seconds before closing, my ear pressed to a phone with a seemingly interminable conference call, I’d simply made a grab in the audio book section to supplement my two hour daily commute. That grab landed me with Death of a Garden Pest, an imperfect yet enjoyable read that added more realism to the cozy genre, picking up with Louise’s traumatized situation after a riveting encounter with a killer in what I discovered was the previous book and also the first in the series. I picked up Mulch, anticipating hearing the mystery from the very beginning.
Mulch is less refined than Louise’s later exploits in the series, allowing readers to see the actual murder in the beginning and revealing the killer at this time. We, of course, are then clued into the shenanigans including the why behind the brutal slaying and just enough gruesome details to bring those rubbernecking instincts to the forefront without dispelling the cozier aspects of the novel. However, knowing the killer from nearly the beginning hampers the tension, leading readers to know that the only answer is a confrontation between the disquieted Louise and the killer. It’s certainly no surprise when on a snowy day, Louise, locked among her bromeliads with no phone and no outside connections is confronted by the chatty murderer, although it is certainly exciting and viscerally enjoyable as she combats the killer with both wit and good-old fashioned violence.
The remainder of the novel, the combination of the DC political scene, corrupt yet still too clean for realism and the president’s shenanigans don’t ring true. Bill’s own job seems to be more a flight of fantasy since the naivety of the entire family doesn’t really reveal the clever world of lies inherent in the type of life that Bill’s career would necessitate for safety and subterfuge. The continual uses of crude language, namely “fucking this” and “fucking that” to separate the bad guys and the crooked guys from the good guys (Louise thinks that saying “sucks” is really hard swearing) marks a story that is straining at the seams to make the cozy world intertwine with a political hotbed/DC drama. It doesn’t work and neither the good guys nor the bad guys come out realistic, but merely surface, stereotypical heroes and villains. I do, however, admit that having a novel take place in my neck of the woods, complete with places I recognize and visit, was an interesting twist and enjoyable. Yeah DC for getting in the cozy crowd.
The reading from the audio book was likewise disappointing, although Lynda Evans has a soothing and mellifluous voice, she seemed almost nervous in some segments while reading (which didn’t occur in Death of a Garden Pest, which she also narrated.) Her oddly southern hillbilly accents for the fake president and cohorts was grating and made men who can move worlds sound ignorant and not at all the wily players that Ripley is attempting to draw. The audio book also picks up the turning of each page, which is odd considering that audio editing software can easily remove this (I work with audio and video software a lot in my own career.)
Nevertheless, despite the less than smooth start to the series, the concluding confrontation is exceptionally well portrayed, and my experience with the second book in the series leads me to want to read further into the adventures of Louise. I sense that the characters and place will fall more into symbiosis with one another as the series progresses, and there are enough promising and enjoyable elements to keep me coming back to the library for the next audio book in the series.
– Frances Carden