The Purest Of Human Pleasures
It is the gardener, Morris Bunter, who discovers the first victim. Wealthy divorcee Loretta Ferroux lies face down among the astilbes with her head smashed in “like the opening of a red poppy.” (Bunter sees everything in horticultural terms; there are many flower metaphors in this book.) He is deeply shocked and bewildered by the murder. We, on the other hand, have not only picked up all sorts of gardening tips from a careful reading of the excellent first chapter, but also know that at least three people stand to benefit from Mrs Ferroux’s untimely death. One of them, another Bunter client, is then brutally struck down under her very own pergola, less than a hundred pages later. Aha! we want to say, the plot thickens. But does it?
Strangely enough, the novel turns out not to be about the murders at all, and solving them is never a priority. They are merely used as props for the narrative without advancing it in any way. The emotional centre of the story is the widowed Bunter’s love and concern for Kate, his 19-year-old daughter and part-time assistant. Kate has successfully lodged a sexual harassment suit against Donald Ingoldsby, a professor at the local university. Since Ingoldsby lives next door to the late Mrs Ferroux, and since Kate inexplicably continues to work in the Ferroux garden despite both the unsolved murder and the proximity of the now-disgraced Ingoldsby, it’s no wonder that Bunter is a worried man.
The character of Morris Bunter is a problem. “Never one to debate the larger issues of life,” Bunter is really only interesting when his thoughts turn to gardening, his favourite topic. He spends too much time overhearing conversations, observing lovers’ trysts, and generally acting as a bystander in scenes where he should be the protagonist. When he does steel himself to act, declare, or confront, he often finds himself interrupted.
Kate, on the other hand, is well-drawn. We see her clearly, sticking out her chin as she argues with her mother-hen father, wearing a straw hat as she works in one of the gardens, a girl who is “rather pretty, despite her squarish frame.” Her youthful trust in the future and the university she has called upon to give her justice touches us, and we sympathize with her subsequent disappointments and loss of innocence.
The characters in this novel have curiously little contact with each other, even given that the occupants of the lakeshore mansions rarely see their neighbours, let along speak to them. There is no real dialogue apart from the exchanges between Bunter and Kate. What we get instead is a lot of internal musing.
In the later stages of the book, the writing deteriorates as the storyline grows increasingly contrived: Bunter and Ingoldsby become rivals in an unlikely romantic triangle, and the narrative finally culminates in an act of violence unrelated to the previous murders or to anything much that has gone on before.
There is a lot that is good in this novel, including the garden lore and sensuous and evocative descriptions of place. Sadly, though, the various elements fail to come together, and the plot never does thicken. mRb