Fresh Meat: Dorothy St. James’ Flowerbed of State

Flowerbed of State by Dorothy St. JamesA 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.

Comments

  1. Chris

    It’s almost hard to believe those two excerpts hail from the same book. The former’s so darn charming, and the latter as bleak as any noir. Sounds like a riveting read.

  2. Steve Weddle

    I’d said the only cozy I’ll ever read will be whatever Joelle Charbonneau writes.
    You’ve pretty much convinced me to double my list of cozy authors.
    This one sounds like the real deal.
    Thanks for making me a better reader.

  3. sabrina ogden

    I think the one thing I like the most about a cozy mysteries is their ability to capture both the light-hearted and the dark moments. I’m a recent reader of cozy mysteries and find that I like them just as much as I do noir. Excellent job in showcasing this genre.

  4. Laura K. Curtis

    I must have this book. MUST HAVE IT. I commented in another cozy post that a good cozy is one of my favorite things but it’s a tough thing to make work, and this sounds like an excellent one!

  5. Clare 2e

    Great post, and I love reading about the spectrum of emotion that a well-written cozy can have.

    Actually, I recall a scene in the aftermath of the physically torturous kidnapping of Mrs. Pollifax (and the Hong Kong Buddha?). At an again-cvilized 5-star hotel lucheon, Mrs. P’s having trouble tracking with what people say, in even deciphering the buzz of conversation. Her back’s held together with bandages, and she’s trying to feel again grounded in the world, after having so recently wished goodbye to everyone she loved, then mentally floating away from intolerable pain and fear. The way Dorothy Gilman wrote Mrs. P trying to counsel herself and talk herself back to feeling and being normal(ish) struck me as remarkably sensitive and real. So there!

  6. Elyse

    If I had only read the second excerpt, I would not have thought this is a cozy. Dang, that’s hardcore!

    I don’t read a lot of cozies so thanks for opening my eyes.

  7. Katrina Niidas Holm

    @Chris and Elyse: I know! That’s a big part of why I loved this book so much. St. James knows how and when to bring the funny, but she’s also capable of writing one hell of a gut-punch. That second excerpt is part of a three-page scene that’s just brutal…

    @Steve, Clare, and Sabrina: Thanks!

    And @Laura: YES!

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