Digging up bones
The older I get, the more aware I am that there are just too many books being published. There's no way to keep up and read everything, so I've made reading guidelines for myself. One I settled on a few years ago was simply not to read any featuring a non-professional as the protagonist-detective. Personally, I would rather not know if my dry cleaner is finding dead bodies on the premises regularly, and, if I had a literary agent, I would certainly prefer that he or she concentrate on selling my book rather than on solving crimes.
Now Rosemary Harris has punctured my neat, serviceable little rule with her new series, which begins with Pushing Up Daisies. Her heroine, Paula Holliday, who was downsized from her media job in New York City, has started a landscaping business in suburban Connecticut. What better profession to give an amateur sleuth—she has an excuse, after all, to be digging around in the dirt, which is a natural place to find a body. There are archeologists, true, but landscaping is a less exotic, more believable job. Paula becomes involved in a mystery when she uncovers the remains of a long-dead baby on the estate of a pair of deceased sisters. Eventually there is a contemporary crime that also catches Paula's growing interest in detective work; the solutions to the mysteries central to the plot are surprisingly complex. Paula does have professional and personal reasons to become involved, so the reader doesn't have to be distracted by wondering why she doesn't leave the police work to the police. (And the policeman here, in the person of the overweight Mike O'Malley, is a person of interest, both to the reader and certainly to Paula.)
Harris, who is a master gardener herself, takes care not to pile on too much horticulture; actually, I would have preferred more. But the strengths of Pushing Up Daisies involve place, character and often sprightly dialogue. And note the scene in which the villain is unmasked: It's highly original and involves a maze, crushed oyster shells and buttercream icing.
Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.