By Laurie R. King; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
When a tilting statue by a once-famous sculptor exposes human remains on the Gardener Estate in Central California, the police are intensely interested.
Raquel Laing, an inspector on leave from the San Francisco Police Department, is sent to represent the San Mateo Police Department. Their investigators are tied up with a triple homicide.
Raquel is a member of an unofficial task force investigating the serial killings of “The Highwayman,” once believed to be an urban legend and lately shown to be all too real.
Task force members believe the serial killer is Michael Allan Johnston, hospitalized with cancer in a secure ward. For the police, it’s a race against time to get Johnston to identify his victims before his death. It may not be a conviction but it provides some closure for the victims’ families.
The remains at the Gardener Estate require Raquel to dig deep into the estate’s years as a commune in the mid-1970s.
For Rob Gardener, who inherited the estate from his hated grandfather, the commune was a rebellion against his grandfather’s expectations. For members of the commune, investing sweat equity into the land and buildings, Rob’s sole ownership of the property was the serpent in the garden.
Rob’s hesitation about relinquishing control of the property to the commune, hinged on wanting his brother Fort, who left decades earlier to join an ashram in India, to have a say in the ultimate decisions about the estate’s future.
Before any decisions are finalized, the commune falls apart after a Midsummer Eve open house for the surrounding community. Meadow, Rob’s lover and the energy and discipline behind the commune, disappears with Gaddo the sculptress. Fort vanishes. Rob retreats to a house he built on a remote corner of the estate.
Now, decades later, Raquel must find out whose body was hidden under the statue, and whether the notorious Highwayman spent any time at the commune.
Author Laurie King has, as always, written a fascinating novel featuring a historic (fictional) California family that became wealthy in the Gold Rush and cemented its power well in the century or more that followed. Controlling expectations by patriarch Thaddeus Gardener lead to rebellion and near destruction of the family estate by his grandsons, Fort and Rob Gardener.
Juxtaposed against the sins and mistakes of the Gardener family are the serial killings of The Highwayman and the dying Johnston, whose ego won’t quite let him go silently into death.
King never makes it clear why Raquel is on leave from SFPD. She uses a cane to get around, but it’s also not clear how she was injured.
Well-written and intriguing, BACK TO THE GARDEN captures several periods of California history well with an entertaining story.
The Author: Laurie R. King (1952 – )
Laurie R. King first came to readers’ attention as the author of A GRAVE TALENT in 1993. The book won the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Her Mary Russell series began with THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE in which Mary Russell meets the retired Sherlock Holmes in 1915. The series carries Russell and Holmes into the 1920s offering views of historical events and revisiting stories such as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and Rudyard Kipling’s KIM.
Her Stuyvesant & Grey series follows Harris Stuyvesant, an American ex-FBI agent, the damaged young Capt. Bennet Grey and Grey’s sister Sarah as they travel through Europe between the Wars.
Her Kate Martinelli series focuses on a San Francisco homicide inspector, her police partner and her life partner.
In addition, she has written a series of stand-alone novels including A DARKER PLACE, FOLLY and CALIFIA’S DAUGHTERS.
She is the third generation of her family native to the San Francisco area, where many of her novels are set. She holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in theology.
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