Pushing Up Daisies, Rosemary Harris, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.
Like gardening? This is the book for you. Rich with detail that never overwhelms the plot, this is the rare treat that gives the reader some useful information while still supplying an entertaining story to go with it. Harris' first effort features landscaper Paula Holliday. Paula has taken a buyout from her former high powered job as a producer of TV documentaries, and moved out to the wilds of ritzy Springfield, Connecticut, where she is trying to eke out a new living as a landscape gardener. Competition is fierce out in the burbs, though, where despite recommendations from the town hangout & café owner, Babe, jobs are still few and far between.
When the last of the wealthy Peacock sisters dies, leaving behind an unkempt and overgrown garden on her estate, "Halcyon", Paula hustles up and nabs the job by (she discovers later) massively underbidding the competition. The whole thing gets complicated when Paula digs up not a weed but the long deceased corpse of a baby her first day on the job. Undeterred, Paula plunges into her new job with gusto, along the way stirring up more old secrets than she can count and acquiring allies along the way.
Harris is a very smooth writer, so while her set up may be a fairly typical cozy mystery scenario, it does have some unexpected twists. She has a maid, Anna, who, while she cleans for Paula, also chases down late accounts (and gets the payment). Anna ties her into a large and largely underground Hispanic community, most of whom work the service jobs required in a wealthy community. Since Paula has actually taken the trouble to learn a bit of rudimentary Spanish, she's given a bit more respect than the average business owner.
My favorite sidebar character is either Paula's high powered friend, Jane, who still works in the cutthroat world of television (and who forces Paula into unwanted beauty regimens when she comes to visit), or Jon, the wet behind the ears tabloid reporter in the making. Jon worships Jane the moment he meets her and becomes Paula's willing slave as he does all kinds of research in the service of digging up a good story.
I liked that everything in this book wasn't predictable - in too many debut mysteries, there's an obvious love interest (he often has a mustache) and the denouement at the end of the book is completely expected. While Paula has some interesting men around, you're not sure what's going to happen when you get to the end of the book, and that's refreshing. The other thing I liked very much were the gardening details - it's difficult to make weeding interesting, but add landscaping details like "garden rooms" and throw in a library of valuable books on the medicinal power of herbs, and you've got me hooked. That this is also neatly tied into the plot makes me think Ms. Harris is only at the beginning of a strong series.
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