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British Mysteries

Death in the Garden, Elizabeth Ironside, Felony and Mayhem, $14.95.

There is such a hunger for the well written British mystery that whenever a new one appears we're able to sell lots of copies. Not to mention the fact that this particular author made an appearance on the Diane Riehm Show, ramping up interest for the book after she read from the evocative first chapter of this interesting, complex and multi-layered novel that is strongly reminiscent of work by Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters. Beginning with the acquittal of Diana Pollexfen for the murder of her husband George in 1925, the book backs up to the weekend of George's death - a weekend house party celebrating Diana's 30th birthday - and then fast forwards to the present, where Diana Pollexfen, now an old lady named Diana Fox, has just died, leaving her house to her 30 year old great niece, Helena. Helena is so gripped by the discovery that there was more to her aunt than a passionate love for her garden - she was also a well known wartime photographer - that she resolves to read through her journals and acquit or convict her beloved great aunt herself.

The setting is similar to Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, as it takes place after World War One, but the evocation of melancholy and complexity is stronger here. You don't have the feeling, as you do with Maisie, that strength will prevail. The characters who assemble for Diana's birthday are a varied lot of artists, writers and cousins and Diana's husband George. George is a surprise to all of Diana's friends because he is so deeply conventional - to the point where he expects Diana to give up her photography and be simply his hostess and mother to his children. As the weekend wears on - a classic example of a pressure cooker with very few characters, a situation well mined by earlier Brits like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh - George's disapproval of his wife becomes obvious to everyone, as do his sudden and inexplicable rages. Diana remains the calm center of the storm. When George dies, Diana's life is neatly divided into "before" and "after" - she sets aside her old friends and life and takes up gardening and rearing her son Peter.

Helena's exploration of the journals, and her tracking down of the now very old people who were at the birthday - or the records they've left behind - gives the book its drive, and makes the reader ever more curious to see what the final denouement may be. It's something of a surprise, but as Ironside skillfully reveals a secret here and there and peels back the layers of everyone's attachments, it's a surprise that's earned. The groundwork has been laid for it. This novel was actually written in 1995, and was a Gold Dagger nominee in Britain (the equivalent to our Edgar award), and only now has it been released in the United States. It's a thoughtful and beautifully written book that should be enjoyed and savored by any fan of the British mystery - or any fan of the well written novel.

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