I DON’T THINK I’ve read a mystery novel since the “Nancy Drew” books of my long-ago childhood, though I will confess to having watched more than a few who-done-it TV series over the years, most of them from the BBC. But I never noticed how many mystery writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Agatha Christie incorporated elements of the garden into their tales of intrigue.
In each of her many books, “New York Times” bestselling author Marta McDowell digs into the way that plants have influenced some of our most cherished writers, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Now she’s focused her latest one on mystery writers, and how they, too, have often drawn influence from the garden and its plants.
What better place than a garden to bury a body…and oh, all those poisonous plants and sharp tools!
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Marta’s new book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 20, 2023 edition of my public radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘gardening can be murder,’ with Marta McDowell
Margaret Roach: It’s funny when I first saw the title of your newest book, “Gardening Can Be Murder,” I thought maybe it referred to the way I feel after a long day of spring or fall cleanup at my advancing age.
Marta McDowell: Well, of course, it means that, too. But yes, and I will say, of all my books, I think this is the first one that Timber has used my exact title, so I really view this as a
Margaret: Timber Press, your publisher. That’s funny. So they went with the title.
Marta: … a small triumph.
Margaret: Yeah. So I mean, is there any genre that you don’t read? I mean, or maybe I should ask, is your filter for what you do read for something that makes your reading list, determining first if the author or characters in the book have a relationship with plants? Because I mean, you really have gone all through different types of writing, children’s writing, and now, mystery writing, poets. [Laughter.] Amazing.
Marta: Well, that was kind of accidental, Margaret, because it was total serendipity, I bumped into the fact that Emily Dickinson was a gardener on this kind of really offbeat trip to Amherst, Massachusetts. It was kind of an unintentional trip. And that opened this … It’s like, the light bulb comes on [laughter] . It’s a very cartoon moment. And I always say, Emily Dickinson changed my life, because from then on, it was like, oh, are there other authors who gardened? This is really interesting to me, and maybe there’s a book in it, or at least an article.
Margaret: Well, and this one seems like … This is one that I never would have thought of, to tie all of these connections. And of course, you make the case in the book, over and over and over again, you give us examples, but I never would’ve thought of it. Yeah, so pretty fascinating.
Marta:[Laughter.] It might be the fault of WGBH in Boston because I watched a lot of those mystery series that came on, it was in the ’80s. I remember Gene Shalit introducing them, all the way up to Alan Cumming, and all the people in between. An early series was “Brother Cadfael,” which is an Alice Peters … the pen name for Edith Pargeter. She was in the way west of England, very close to the Welsh borders, and she wrote these historical mysteries set in the 12th century in a Benedictine abbey. Talk about piling things on.
And so, that kind of always stuck with me. It was played by Derek Jacoby, a really good series. And … I don’t know, it was much later on. That doesn’t answer your question; I do read lots of things that don’t have gardening in them. Yes, absolutely[laughter] .
Margaret: O.K., so it’s not a requisite.
Marta: No, no, no, I’m apparently reading a book by Muriel Spark, called “Memento Mori,” which is very good.
Margaret: Yeah, so the subhead on the cover of “Gardening Can Be Murder” reads, “How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, and Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers.” And within, you have these different chapters in the book, sort of grouping things.
But the garden, as you pointed out, is a good place to hide a body [laughter] . It’s a source of poisons; there’s a lot of sharp tools.
But again, I never thought of that. But it’s funny, it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a scientist at the University of New Mexico, who studies host-parasite evolution, like creatures that parasitize other creatures, and especially this one type of nematode relative, these hairworms, these things called nematomorphs, that parasitize, and then, zombie-fy creatures; they turn other creatures into zombies [laughter] . Yeah, I’m not kidding.
Marta: We do plant horror, that is really amazing.
Margaret: Yeah, so they lay their eggs in crickets or beetles or grasshoppers, and turn those into zombies [laughter] . And so, science-fiction writers would approach this scientist to ask him to explain the process so that they could make their science-fiction writing more authentic.
And so, in a way, it reminded me of your story of these mystery writers who wanted to have these accurate portrayals, whether it was of the plants or the processes, or whatever, that inspired them.
Some of the mystery writers you include in the book don’t just use elements of the garden in the stories that they weave, but they garden themselves. Like I didn’t know that Agatha Christie was a gardener, not just her Miss Marple character, who had plant references; she had plant references, right?
Marta: Right, so Agatha Christie is one of these authors, you got to love her. If you go to a bookstore today—and I hope all of your listeners have their favorite local indie bookstore that they support—and you look on the shelves in the mystery section, invariably, you’ll see a solid representation of Agatha Christie, who died in the 1970s. I mean, the woman, the author, has legs[laughter] . They keep doing adaptations, there’s a new Kenneth Branagh film that was an adaptation of Agatha Christie. And that’s fabulous, and the fact that she gardened, I think, really added to it for me.
I knew that she had some education in poisons because of being an apothecary or working for an apothecary during the war. But she also grew up in a home with extensive gardens; her grandmother had a rose garden that she adored. And in later life, Agatha Christie bought a home very close to her childhood home in South Devon. And Greenway appears in some of her books in very vivid descriptions, although it’s not called that. Her husband had a very extensive collection of rhododendrons, so Greenway, which is now a National Trust property, is on my list of places to go visit because I’m sure there’s a great gift shop, right?
Margaret: Right. She loved camellias, too, correct?
Marta: Yes, camellias and rhododendron. So I think when they acquired the property, they already had quite a few plants, but they really extended that.
Margaret: And in some of her books, the Miss Marple character drew inferences from horticultural, so to speak, or botanical things as well.
Marta: Absolutely, so Miss Marple can sling around botanical Latin, and she has very definite feelings about plants, which most gardeners do. It’s like, she liked flowers, not vegetables; I like them both. And I think maybe Christie can be credited with sort of setting that standard for the village murder mystery that includes a cottage garden, and there are a lot of them. I think that the grayer I get, the more Miss Marple appeals to me.
Margaret: Well, Nathaniel Hawthorne—and there’s that last name, Hawthorne, which is botanical—I mean, he had great gardens, as well, yes?
Marta: Yes. Yeah, those people that hung out in Concord, Massachusetts, I think there must’ve been something about the water there. It’s kind of like the Bloomsbury group. And Henry David Thoreau dug Nathaniel Hawthorne’s garden for him [laughter] .
Margaret: Oh my goodness, I had no idea.
Marta: Yeah. Yeah, really extraordinary, yeah, so Thoreau was Emerson’s gardener, too. You go like, this is really strange and wonderful. Anyway, Hawthorne wrote this wonderful story … he is not your classic detective fiction writer, but a mysterious, gothic kind of book. And one of his stories is called “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
It’s set in Padua, and Padua has the world’s oldest continually operating, I should say, botanic garden, at least in Europe. And so, he sets the garden in Padua, I think for that reason, because the owner of this garden is an apothecary, and it’s a very mysterious garden and a very potent garden. Not to give it away, but it’s sort of like, if you wanted to look at poison gardens, definitely have “Rappaccini’s Daughter” on your list.
Margaret: And in his real life, isn’t Tanglewood, the music center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, was that a home of his, Tanglewood? Did I make that up?
Marta: He had a home called Tanglewood, and I think it’s near the Berkshires.
Margaret: O.K., so it’s in that area, it’s just not that actual property, but it’s near there somewhere. But he was from there.
Marta: It is, and it’s a little, almost cabin, you can imagine, yeah, Hawthorne-
Margaret: Oh, interesting.
Marta: … and Sophia … Nathaniel and Sophia out there. And he was trying to write. He wrote these great letters to Melville. Again, they all knew one another.
Margaret: Yeah, fantastic. I loved coming upon Rex Stout in the book, and that might be a less familiar name to some. He was in Connecticut, and he was the author of this series of mysteries, the “Nero Wolfe” mysteries.
But I’m a lifelong fan of his sister, Ruth Stout, which, was like the original lasagna gardener; one of her books was called “The No-Work Garden,” haha, as if there is. But she kind of used everything as mulch and no-till, and I mean, really fascinating. And I think this was back in the ’50s or something.
So I knew about him because I knew about her, not because I knew his mysteries. But in real life, I think he was obsessed with houseplants and the outdoors, he had quite an iris collection or something, yes?
Marta: Yes, he loved tall, bearded irises, and he was that quintessential garden geek who kept really detailed records on every iris variety, and he would rate them and track them from year to year. I wonder if somebody has his garden notebooks because I think they’d be absolutely fascinating to look through. As far as I know, the property that he gardened on in Danbury is no longer there. The few pictures I found of it looked really, really interesting. I couldn’t travel for this book to do research, because we were having this little thing called a global pandemic.
Margaret: Oh, I remember that, yeah.
Marta: Oh, yeah, and so, I did this whole book from the comfort of my home, looking out my office window at my garden and my neighbor’s garden, and making many, many trips to the library, because God bless librarians, they were in there, I guess in isolation, bagging our books that they got from through the system, and leaving them in little brown paper bags in the back hallway of our library.
Margaret:[Laughter.] Oh, my. So I mean, the “Nero Wolfe” series, I think those mysteries have, over decades, had a couple, or even maybe a few incarnations as TV series, I think including … One version starred Timothy Hutton, but I think Timothy Hutton wasn’t Nero Wolfe, the detective, but his sidekick.
Marta: Right, he was Archie … Yeah, he was Archie Goodwin, right? So again, from really early on, there’s been this kind of, there’s the detective, and then, there’s the sidekick, a la Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It helps with the narration and the action to have more than one person. So yes, Archie Goodwin, in fact, William Shatner very briefly played Archie Goodwin, as well. Of course, I think of him as Captain Kirk.
Margaret: Of course, of course. “Beam me up, Scotty.” But yeah, and I think that Nero Wolfe, the fictional detective, was like an orchid fancier, so there was a lot of botanical stuff going on in there, which is interesting.
Marta: Yeah, and beyond fancier, orchids were his life. He was a private sleuth with very high fees so that he could afford his orchid habit and his New York City brownstone. If you’re on West 35th Street, and I forget the actual number, but on the brownstone at the address where the fictional Nero Wolfe lived, there is a plaque for Nero Wolfe.
Margaret: That’s funny.
Marta: But lots of orchids.
Margaret: I want to talk about some of those poison plants because that is always fun [laughter] . And you have a number of them in the book, including a couple that you and I both love, we both love opium poppies, the breadseed or opium poppy. And so, that’s one that I think is commonly grown, and is in many seed catalogs, and so forth. But that sort of has also been featured as an element in some of these mysteries over time, yes?
Marta: Yes, opium, both as a sedative, it appears in various Sherlock Holmes stories, and as a poison, in Cadfael, you have poisons with poppies. And opium poppies are potent, and like many potent plants, they have been pharmaceuticals, beneficial pharmaceuticals, less beneficial pharmaceuticals, and poison, all rolled up into one. And then, also, opium also lent that kind of smoky, opium-den character to many Victorian novels and historical mysteries now.
Margaret: And not to mention that it lent seed to a poppy-seed bagel, which is my favorite version of a bagel.
Marta: You bet. You bet. In the book, I tell the story, a true story, I went for a job interview, I was getting a job at the time for a county park system. My county has some lovely gardens, and you had to go for this really extensive physical to get this job. And the nurse practitioner who was doing the physical … Oh, I guess it was, “Go pee in a cup.” And she said, have you had a poppy seed bagel over the past two days? And I went, “What?” I said, “No, why?” And she said, “Well because your drug test will show up positive.” I was like, “Really?”
Margaret: Right, right, right. But I can’t imagine not having them in the garden, just the way they self-sow around, and they’re just so delicate in flower. And then, the pods are so almost indestructible, they’re so strong, and they open up like little shakers. I just love them, I just love them in all their moments.
Marta: Yes, and the pods are all in little containers all over my mantle piece, because-
Margaret: Me, too. Here, too.
Marta: … I love the way they look. It’s a great pass-along plant, so if you have friends, you can give them seeds, and you’ll still have plenty. You can ask them for their varieties. Just don’t go chewing on the pods, right?
Margaret: No, probably not. One that I don’t grow, and I’m sure you don’t grow either, but it has sort of become a wild thing in many areas of the country, I think it was originally European, is poison hemlock [Conium maculatum], which is not a hemlock tree or a relative. It’s a relative of the carrot, I think, yes?
Marta: Yes. And I do love umbels; I love flowers with that shape, like a classic Queen Anne’s lace kind of shape. But I grow, maybe by now, too much Zizia, which is a native plant that really loves my garden, and has started to romp around with some level of aggression. But it is a beautiful plant, and blooms for a long time, and then, when it’s done blooming, even now, because we’re right on the verge of everything dying down to the ground, but even now, it still looks really nice in my garden, so the foliage holds up, as well. But you don’t want poison hemlock in your garden.
Marta: And even if you grow poison plants, like today, I was relocating foxglove seedlings out of my vegetable boxes, because I have these raised-bed boxes where I grow salad greens and herbs and some cherry tomatoes and things. I was relocating them out of there because sometimes, someone else in my household will go out to pick the salad greens, and that someone else isn’t a gardener, and I don’t want them accidentally getting foxglove leaves mixed up with the arugula [laughter] .
Margaret: Exactly, exactly. So that’s another one, and you write about castor bean [Ricinus communis], which has ricin, the poison ricin, in certain parts of the plant, I guess, and that’s quite a fierce one. I loved that you noted in the book that Harry Truman’s daughter, who was a mystery writer, incorporated castor beans into one of her plots, and so did various other writers. I didn’t even know that little anecdote.
Marta: Yes, yes, Margaret Truman wrote a “Capital Crimes” series. I think she had some help from a ghostwriter. But they’re fun to read, and obviously, of the period. And yes, she absolutely uses that as the murder weapon in one of her stories.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s a great plant, I mean, it’s a majestic, kind of crazy plant. I was talking to a writer, essayist, and poet Ross Gay, recently, on the occasion of his newest book. And he’s a keen gardener, and he has it kind of self-sowing around his place, he and his partner do, and they have to pull some of them out, because I mean, the leaves are gargantuan, also, and it almost can create shade, it’s such a big … Yeah, yeah, it almost looks tropical.
Marta: And in one season. Yeah, in one season. That’s the astounding thing. So I mean, when you get the seeds, you go like, O.K., well, this is going to be some kind of plant because the seeds are really big. And I see it in community gardens, which always surprises me a bit, because most people are growing edibles in community gardens, and it always makes me wonder if they know. I see in the garden centers, always right around October, they’ll start bringing out the monkshood, and you go, that’s really toxic.
Margaret: The Aconitum, yes. But they’re so beautiful, I mean, in the fall, to have that sort of … Well, the beautiful dark purple. I mean, they come in different colors, I guess, different shades, but they’re gorgeous, the aconitums.
Marta: They are absolutely gorgeous, and yet, I do think maybe they ought to have some little warning. There’s a nonprofit website called poison.org, and on it, it has: This really happened. And you do see plant poisons showing up in accidental and deliberate poisonings.
Margaret: Yeah. Well, Agatha Christie used the monkshood, I think, in at least one of her plot twists, yeah?
Marta: Yep, absolutely, and even one of the Brother Cadfael’s is called “Monk’s Hood,” for obvious reasons, yes.
Margaret: Oh, boy, I’ve stepped right into that one. There are a couple of others… I mean, Taxus, the yews, you give an anecdote in the book that your mother reminded you as a child not to eat the little red berries, right?
Marta: That’s right, although, actually, the red part is not toxic, the aril, but the seed inside is, so she was right. I mean, I wasn’t likely to go chewing on the yew bushes in front of the house, but she knew that.
Margaret: No, but it can be attractive. It’s gleaming and colorful, and stands out, so a child might go and pick one and think it’s like a strawberry or a raspberry or something.
Marta: You bet. You bet.
Margaret: So do you read mysteries? Are you a mystery reader? I’m not. As I said in the beginning, I do watch series.
Marta: Yeah, I’m a really eclectic reader, so I often reach for a mystery as a kind of brain candy. I’ll read fiction and nonfiction, but then, I’ll feel like reading a murder mystery; they’re usually fun. I don’t like stalker mysteries, I’m not crazy about these really intense thrillers, although I read them sometimes. Ruth Ware, I’m always at the edge of my seat, and I never guess the ending. But you know everybody’s different, and some people love those.
And this was just a lot of fun to put together, I found lots of different mystery writers that I didn’t know. And it was strangely crowdsourced, because every time I would mention to a group, at the time, I was doing them all on Zoom, but I’d mentioned to a group, oh, I’m working on this book about crime fiction and horticultural themes, someone would get in touch with me and go, well, here are a dozen that I really enjoy [laughter] .
Margaret: Oh my goodness, O.K. I see you got people going.
Marta: Yes, so there are people who just read them nonstop. My sister reads every series and every book in the series.
Margaret: Well, Marta McDowell, the author, most recently, of “Gardening Can Be Murder,” I’m always glad to talk to you and get some reading suggestions. But this is a funny one, this surprised me. Like I said, I thought it was about how I feel after a hard day of gardening [laughter] .
Marta: Yeah, a friend of mine did the illustration, Yolanda Fundora, and I think they’re fantastic.
Margaret: Yeah, they’re adorable, so we’ll put some of those with the transcript. And I’ll talk to you again soon, I hope. Thanks.
more with Marta McDowell
(Illustrations from the book are by Yolanda Fundora. Author photo by Sarma Ozols.)
enter to win a copy of ‘gardening can be murder’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Gardening Can Be Murder” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
Any mysteries on the bedside table over there, or poison plants in the garden? Tell us more.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close Tuesday November 28, 2023 at midnight. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 on Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 20, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).