A new release that caught my attention this month is Dorothy St. James’ Flowerbed of State, the first in St. James’ White House Gardener Mystery Series, and it quite simply blew me away.
St. James does so many things right in this book, but the thing I admire most is the way she uses dramatic moments to not only heighten tension and forward plot, but inform character, as well. Sometimes she does this with humor, as is the case in the following scene, which finds protagonist Casey Calhoun alone in an apartment with a potential suspect:
Why would Lorenzo be wearing the killer’s shoes?
He wouldn’t. Not unless the killer and Lorenzo were one and the—
In a panic I jumped up and grabbed the first thing that came to mind. A knife.
A satisfyingly large butcher’s knife. I liked the weight of it in my hand.
“What are you doing?” Lorenzo asked as I whirled toward him, the knife pointed menacingly toward his chest.
“Um…um…” What did I think I was going to do with the knife? This was Lorenzo, for heaven’s sake. “Oh, you know me. When I get nervous, I garden.”
“With a butcher’s knife?”
Right. That didn’t make sense.
Desperate, I grabbed the closest thing at hand, a pineapple Alyssa had purchased a few days earlier and had left sitting out next to the bread box. The knife’s sharp blade made a satisfying thunk as it cut through the top of the pineapple, freeing its bright green top. I raised the stalk of spiky leaves in the air as if it were a trophy. Bits of bright yellow pineapple flesh clung to it.
“I’m going to grow this pineapple top.”
His brows crinkled. “Right now? In the kitchen?”
“Yes. Why not? They make great houseplants, you know.”
But St. James also knows when to let the gravitas of a moment stand. Witness this haunting scene in which Casey relates to a friend a tragedy from her childhood:
The words my mom had said next echoed like an unholy wind in my ears. “I’m so sorry, pumpkin.” I pushed her apology deep into the recesses of my memories where I wouldn’t have to hear them ever again.
“Her voice was cold as she told the man to stop stalling and go ahead and get it over with. She told him to shoot me. So he did. He shot me three times in the stomach.”
“God.” Turner’s eyes had grown dark.
“I was conscious long enough to watch him turn the gun on Mom.”
Mommy. Please don’t leave me.
“He squeezed off just one shot.” My voice cracked. “The bullet hit her in the head.”
I recently heard someone complain that cozy mysteries take too cavalier an attitude toward death. I’d argue, however, that the best cozies aren’t like that; the ones I find most compelling strive to portray a more human reaction to danger and death. Sometimes, we laugh through our tears. And sometimes, we’re just left with the tears. Flowerbed of State is being released on May 3. Head on over to The Season for my full, rave review.
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for The Season E-Zine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.