Book Review: Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King

In Laurie R. King's gripping standalone Back to the Garden, a fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life—with potentially fatal consequences. Here's Michelle Carpenter's review!

A frontrunner in the literary world of cold case fiction has emerged this year in the form of Back to the Garden. This new thriller from renowned author Laurie R. King had me hooked from page one. King opens up the novel by diving into the past, and from here seamlessly transports the reader back and forth between present day and the free-loving seventies of Northern California.

King sets the stage by taking the time to paint a picture of the Gardener Estate—the true focal point of this novel. The estate was originally an architectural beacon of wealth and fame, which then evolved into a hippie commune of the seventies and now today stands as public gardens, and a home to celebrated art and relics of the past. However, beneath the rolling hills and wisteria trellises lies a darker secret. The Gardener Estate is also the scene of a crime, long buried under the colossal three-headed statue of a famed artist who frequented the commune. 

Unearthing these human remains is what brings Inspector Raquel Laing to the estate. Although the estate workers claim that the Gardener Estate’s past was focused on peace and love, the bones found under the statue suggest otherwise. Laing, currently specializing in cold case files, is instantly intrigued that the body discovered in this modern-day Eden may be a link to a long dormant serial killer who had thought he was getting away with murder.  

“In Raquel’s experience, every Eden had a serpent. And love did not inoculate against its venom.”

Stepping back in time, Laing becomes familiar with the inhabitants of The Commune, a sanctuary for those seeking peace, love and equality. On the surface, the archives depict the estate as a center of community where life was dedicated to harvesting crops, sharing responsibility, and bringing art and music to life. However, as these characters begin to come to life it becomes apparent that The Commune also housed some tangled webs, and no amount of free love could combat human jealousy. While Laing carefully catalogs each potential victim at the estate, she is simultaneously trying to draw information out of the now aged and dying killer—The Highwayman.

“Quietly knowing that somewhere out there, a family was waiting – waiting for DNA, and for scattered bones to be pieced together, and for Raquel Laing to find something that either confirmed or denied The Highwayman’s involvement here. Quietly knowing that every day’s delay brought this one victim closer to being just another sad unsolved mystery.”

The Highwayman, a serial killer linked to female hitchhikers in the seventies, is what brought Laing to the Gardener Estate. There are over ten of the killer’s victims that have not yet been accounted for, and it’s Laing’s job to explore every possible lead. However, the link to the estate is tenuous, and Laing is up against a clock before the suspect dies and takes the identities of his victims to the grave with him.  

“Somehow, he had turned their investigation into a game, a twisted monster’s final amusement.”

Laing’s investigation keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very last sentence. What King manages to do so well throughout Back to the Garden is tie multiple plot-lines together into one—the cold case files of The Highwayman, the rise and fall of The Commune, Laing’s personal life and career, and even a spark of romance. Overall, Back to the Garden is the definition of a page turner, and absolutely worth the read for any fellow thriller fans.

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