Sunday, June 03, 2007

Ironside's Death in the Garden


Title: Death in the Garden

Author: Elizabeth Ironside (pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning who, just as a tidbit of useless nickel knowledge, serves on the Board of Governors for the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Length: 274 pages

Copyright: 1995 (First US edition published 2005, Felony & Mayhem Press, ISBN 1933397179)

Summary: Death in the Garden opens dramatically with delivery of a verdict in the trial of Diana Pollexfen for the murder of her husband, George. The crime was during a weekend house party that was in ostensible celebration of Diana herself turning 30. As we discover, the birthday party was less than a success but it's initially hard to determine who was responsible for the failure of the event. We are witnesses to the weekend but, while there is a certain amount of simmering animosity amongst the attendees, there are no obvious reasons for actual murder. Still, George is dead and someone did it. Diana has been found innocent by the jury, but there are those who suspect the verdict is due more to her beauty, status and wealth than any evidence presented in court.

Some decades later, we see Helena (whose last name we are never to learn) faced with Great Aunt's death; Helena is one of two executors of her will. Intrigued by journals found at Inglethorpe, the house that Great Aunt occupied, Helena seeks to unravel the mystery of spousal murder left as part of Diana's legacy.

This book equals the best of anything by P.D. James. The writing is impressive and the story complex and unpredictable. Characters are robust and exquisitely detailed. You envision each as distinct and real.


On the central table was a great bowl of white roses and she imagined she could smell their scent from where she stood. Framed in the open doorway were Diana and Gaetan in close conversation. There was something comic in the two figures; the small Frenchman with his narrow, dapper person and huge head, and the elongated, stork-like Diana with her small dark skull looking down at him. They were laughing. Gaetan took Diana's right hand and raised it to his lips, holding it there for a minute and looking at her.

The library door opened and George emerged, prayer book in hand. Edith had now ceased any pretence of descent.

Also Relevant: I had been eyeing this title in the store for months, resisting temptation. When JenClair offered to send it to me in return for the Campion novels, I felt it was a sign of sorts and accepted gratefully. Her review of the book is here.

A little investigation offered up this Washington Post review. As a little bit more nickel knowledge, Time Magazine reports that Laura Bush has also read this book. One imagines that she had a certain political obligation, given that Lady Manning is wife of the British Ambassador to the U.S. I mean no disrespect; it's just the way of the Washington Beltway crowd. One wants to be prepared with on-dits for meeting up with people at cocktail parties.

Death in the Garden has a crime at the center of events but it could easily be presented as a mainstream novel. Ironside uses her book to spotlight the inequities of the sexes in twentieth century Britain. We see Diana's life as a married woman in England between the Wars and we see Helena's life as a working lawyer during the 1980's. The author invites us to view the challenges faced by each, the trade-offs they make, but doesn't neglect to point out that constraints imposed society play a large part in the equation. The novel explores the bounds of honorable behavior by male and female under the pressure of social expectation. Ironside is far too intelligent to offer pat answers. Her women are strong, but their daily existence becomes twisted by external events as well as private emotions and my interpretation is that neither finds real happiness. Acceptance, perhaps, but not happiness.

I recommend this heartily.