The Forbidden Garden (1962) by Ursula Curtiss

The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Wanted: Mature companion to older woman in North Valley. Pleasant surroundings. Cooking, no housework.”

All the neighbors are dying to know what makes Mrs. Marrable’s poplars grow so well in the desert. That’s just one of Claire Marrable’s secrets. After the death of her husband, she decides she would rather be a wealthy widow than a poor one. The only thing holding her back is money, but that’s easily remedied. Rich old ladies are expected to hire companions, and hired companions are often alone in the world with their savings. Mrs. Marrable’s had five companions now, and there are five poplar trees lined up in her garden, all in a row.

But the sixth companion is different. Has Mrs. Marrable finally met her match?

The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss The Forbidden Garden is a wonderfully nasty morsel, poison all the way through. It’s a hilarious dark comedy that also examines the plight of elderly women in a society designed for the young. In a world where impoverished old ladies are expected to be invisible and dependent, Mrs. Marrable turns to murder so she can remain her own strident self, matter-of-factly knocking off the meek in order to finance her preferred lifestyle. (The irony is that she is essentially killing her own kind so she can avoid their fate.) She is a villain in the grand style: bold and cunning, with a “cold, tidy mind.”

Naturally, Mrs. Marrable prefers her privacy. When it is invaded, she becomes increasingly paranoid. Her nephew George and his wife Julia spoil her because they expect to inherit. Perhaps she’s done too good a job convincing them of her wealth. Against Mrs. Marrable’s wishes, George has installed tenants in the guest house, Harriet Crewe and her sickly, but curious, little nephew James. It’s certainly odd that just after Harriet moves in, a strange man starts prowling around after dark. Thank goodness for Mrs. Dimmock, the perfect companion—or is she? “Surveillance, blackmail, poison…not thoughts to sleep soundly with, and Mrs. Marrable did not.”

Homicide has become second nature to her now, and it is bleakly comic to watch Mrs. Marrable go through her paces, complicated by the belief that she is battling a fierce but unknown adversary. She even develops a literal evil eye, a facial tic she blames on stress.

Mrs. Marrable realized with shock that the methodical mind which had carried her safely through the last three years was beginning to veer in all directions. It was a little like being in a dark room and hearing a sound that seemed to come from all four corners at once.

Why, when Miss Tinsley [her previous companion] had been as eminently disappearable as all the others? Because George had come so soon afterwards, when the calf pocketbook still stood on the floor? Because the cottage was tenanted now? Or was it possible—the bizarre thought struck Mrs. Marrable—that this condition had been present from the very first venture, like a deadly cell lying buried in the tissues and only awaiting certain circumstances to multiply, run rampant, claim the helpless body for its own?

This way madness lies—but not madness, thought Mrs. Marrable, clearly and coldly. Panic and ultimate discovery.

Across the garden, her nemesis Harriet Crewe vividly demonstrates what can happen to a single woman who lacks Mrs. Marrable’s fierce independence. Harriet is supposed to be in Santa Fe temporarily; when the severely asthmatic James needed a quick change of climate, his unmarried aunt was deputized for the job. As time passes, however, there is no sign of his parents. Harriet starts to wonder just what she’s let herself in for. As usual, Ursula Curtiss is dead-on with her portrayals of children.

Although his frequent illnesses had curtailed his physical activities, James was not a reader. At some future time, he might be a thinker; at present he was a talker. There were times when Harriet was driven to reflect that if he had not been visited by asthma he would have talked his lungs into some other kind of trouble. It was not the usual excited spate of childhood, but a mild, reflective stream-of-consciousness. He had seen a lizard under the woodpile that morning, a very dark blue one with a spot of white on its throat. Did Harriet like Theodore Roosevelt? (This was the kind of question that, because of its very lack of context, irritatingly demanded thought.) Mrs. Marrable had showed him the birdfeeder in her garden.

The Forbidden Garden by Ursula CurtissThis is an interesting variation on the inverted mystery because, while Mrs. Marrable’s activities are known to the reader from the beginning, it is not known who, if anyone, is conspiring against her. Therefore when she decides to take action, it’s not clear whether it is “justified” even from her own warped perspective. The reader fears for both Mrs. Marrable and her potential victims simultaneously.

The Forbidden Garden is an acerbic black comedy that slowly builds in horror until it reaches a fabulously deranged climax. There is plenty of room in Mrs. Marrable’s garden. Can she be stopped, and do we even want her to be?

Second Opinion

Saturday Review, July 28, 1962

Grisly, but nice.


There’s no intention in The Forbidden Garden to create a masterpiece of literature for the ages. All that’s sought is to to entertain, and Curtiss succeeds superbly in this aim. I’ll certainly be looking out more of her work.


The Forbidden Garden (also published as Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?) is out of print, with used copies easily available. This title was also published as an Ace Giant Double with Hours to Kill.

The film version, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?, is a classic of “psycho-biddy” horror. It’s available on DVD and BluRay from Kino Lorber in the US and Canada.


9 thoughts on “The Forbidden Garden (1962) by Ursula Curtiss

  1. I will take full credit for recommending this to you …even if you had already planned on reading it without my advice ;^) So glad that you liked it as much as I did. I have talked this up all over the vintage blogs (including Kate’s) and you’re the only one to have followed through. This is one of the best of the “badass biddy” books I’ve read and reviewed on my blog. I even a tag “badass biddy” for them because I read so many of them!

    Now you must see the movie! Geraldine Page is a deliciously selfish and amoral Mrs. Marable. And it was a delight to see Ruth Gordon (as her Nemesis) in a role in which she had to downplay her usual feisty & sassy character she revisited innumerably times in almost everything she did after Rosemary’s Baby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You may definitely claim credit; it was already on my radar, but your enthusiasm moved it way up the list. This has such deadpan humor but is also quite harrowing in spots. I can see how it would make a great horror movie. My library’s DVD of What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice has been lost for months. I don’t usually blind buy DVDs, but this may have to be an exception.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only heard good things about So Dies the Dreamer. Everything I’ve read by Curtiss so far has been excellent; the only disappointment was In Cold Pursuit, which is still readable but not up to her normal high standards.


  2. Thanks for your review; I agree with every word of it. There are two mystery/suspense writers of this era who I believe are sadly neglected. Ursula Curtiss is one of them. The other is Celia Fremlin. Both write sentences with razor-sharp wit. Fremlin’s heroines tend to feel alienated from “modern” society around them, and Curtiss’s heroines are trying to be independent, and making progress in that direction, but still susceptible to the charms of a handsome man. Fremlin’s heroines are often married, unhappily or at least with very mixed feelings about it. When I read anything by these two women, and compare the books to the sophomoric cozies being published today, I feel nothing but pain. Margaret Millar at least gets her due among people in the know; now we need Curtiss and Fremlin mentioned with the same awe and reverence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Always good to meet a Curtiss and Fremlin fan! I agree that they are two of the finest writers of the postwar era, and the most underrated. Fremlin is at least coming back into print and starting to get attention from readers. It would be wonderful if Curtiss could be reprinted as well. What you point out is exactly what appeals to me about these two authors–their clever prose and thoughtful examination of women’s roles in society. Fremlin in particular really pushes back against conventional wisdom regarding marriage and family obligations. Curtiss tends to be more conventional in terms of romance, but I appreciate that she does put the men through their paces. They have to prove that they are trustworthy and compatible, so the relationships seem more genuine. As far as I’m concerned, Ursula Curtiss and Celia Fremlin are right up there with Margaret Millar. All three of these women have their own intelligent, unique worldview, and you know you’re getting something special when you pick up one of their books.


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