“Whatever might be said against gossip on general principles, if Lucy Bex had not taken an interest in her neighbors, the wrong person might have been hanged when a murder was committed in Clonmeen.”
New faces always cause a stir in the Irish village of Clonmeen, so the arrival of Lady Madeleine Osmund and her family is even more exciting than the annual garden show.
It turns out there’s a bigger surprise in store. Lucy Bex is shocked when her new neighbor Lady Madeleine dies by eating poisonous aconite, the monkshood plant. The coroner declares it a regrettable accident—someone in the kitchen simply confused aconite with horseradish. But Lucy is an avid gardener. She knows that only one garden in Clonmeen contains monkshood. She knows that vandals have been stealing plants from that garden. And ever since the thefts, Lucy has been spotting monkshood all over the village. This can mean only one thing: murder.
Common or Garden Crime is a charming mystery distinguished by its setting in wartime Ireland as well as its gentle humor. Although Lucy’s circumstances are those of the stereotypical middle-aged spinster (she keeps house for her brother and is obsessed with gardening), she is never treated dismissively by the author or by those around her. Lucy is an intelligent and perceptive woman whose brother, nephew, and friends value her good sense and come to her with all manner of problems, including crime. Even the police take her feminine intuition seriously. The result is an exceedingly pleasant slice of domestic life in the 1940s, with a generous helping of murder on the side.
Lucy and her brother Linnaeus live in Annalee Lodge, one of four houses that once made up a single estate and now form a sort of gated community. Needless to say, the Bexes and their neighbors are fascinated by the arrival of the Osmunds. The glamorous Lady Madeleine, her husband Oswalt, and their dashing nephew Lord Barna are quite unlike anyone else in the village. Lady Madeleine has even employed an artist, Miss FitzEustace, to spend the summer immortalizing the house and grounds, an unheard-of extravagance.
The appearance of the Osmunds coincides with a series of strange events, however. Just after the party during which Mrs. Nichol-Jervis proudly shows off her garden, including poison monkshood, vandals begin scaling garden walls to steal plants. Lucy notices that someone has added blooms of monkshood to the church flower arrangements. Amidst all this, Lady Madeleine is running low on cash while Lord Barna restlessly yearns to return to his dance company in Dublin. At first, Lucy is the only one to take note of these occurrences.
It was a difference that Lucy had often regretted between herself and her great friend, that Mrs. Nichol-Jervis was apt to be high-minded about gossip. She was an unimaginative person, and very well brought up; one might nearly as well talk to a man. Lucy believed in gossip, but not idle gossip. She practiced it as an art.
With so many sinister happenings, however, it is perhaps not too surprising when Lady Madeleine is poisoned. Lucy is impressed that the police are able to identify the poison: “How clever of them! Somehow, one doesn’t expect them to detect like that in real life.” Still, Lucy can’t help asking questions on her own. Where did the aconite come from? Why did it only affect Lady Madeleine, when her entire family ate from the same dishes? And just what does it take to get a drain unclogged these days?
The most resonant aspect of Common or Garden Crime is its highly detailed portrait of life in Ireland during World War II, with all of its confusion and uncertainty. Ireland is a neutral country, but the war still affects the daily lives of these characters. Their food and fuel are rationed and their servants are decamping to England for better-paid work in defense plants. Meals are always a problem.
“Ordering meals,” said Lucy, launching on a favorite topic, “is like free will and predestination. You think you can have what you like, and then you find it’s all dictated by circumstances. The weekend before a bank holiday you have to think about having something cold for Monday. There isn’t enough on lamb and nobody wants to eat cold mutton. Pork’s no good in August, and you can’t get ham at present. So you see it just has to be beef, and now that nobody has any mustard, horseradish naturally goes with it.”
It’s easy to identify with Lucy as she cheerfully struggles to run a household without knowing what food or supplies will be available on any given day, or whether the shops will be open at all. That said, I’m in no hurry to follow the Osmunds’ potato salad recipe—”It was sliced-up potato piled on top of lettuce, with those little raw onions…There wasn’t any dressing on it.” The wonder is that Lady Madeleine is able to choke down enough of this to be poisoned by it.
Despite Ireland’s neutrality, Lucy’s nephew Ivor is serving in the British military. (This is one wartime mystery where young men are viewed with suspicion for being in uniform.) He is currently home on leave, happy to assist his aunt and father in their detection, less happy about Wendy Nichol-Jervis’ relationship with Lord Barna. Lucy is bemused by rumors of a love triangle. Dear as her nephew is to her, she cannot imagine Wendy preferring the perfectly ordinary Ivor over a debonair nobleman. (Though she admits that Ivor is handicapped by his wardrobe, “those remnants to which he had been reduced through not being allowed to wear British uniform in a neutral country and not having any Irish clothes coupons.”)
The garden show reveals that Lucy is not the only one with a keen sense of Clonmeen’s social divisions. “All sides rub along all right in Clonmeen,” but Sheila Pim slyly reveals the maneuvering that is required to keep everyone friendly, at least on the surface.
“Politics are the curse of this country,” said Osmund, making the recognized gambit for a discussion on the lines customary in Ireland. Everybody begins by voicing what he assumes are the other parties’ opinions, without giving away his own. Thus, the Bexes, seeing that Lord Barna was not in the British forces, praised neutrality, while Osmund, glancing round at various photographs of Ivor and other people in uniform, said that, in his view, “Devallera” had missed a great chance. Then Lucy said that nobody could doubt that “Mr. De Valera” represented the feeling of the country generally, Osmund wondered what would happen when all those who had joined the British forces came back to their own country, and Linnaeus spoke soberly of the disillusionments that follow victory.
So far, it was all a harmony based on familiar refrains, with nobody being provocative and no urge to reach any conclusion.
For Lucy, there are only two sorts of people in the world: gardeners and non-gardeners. Even the garden club is not safe from political tensions, however. Until recently, the garden show was affiliated with the Protestant Church of Ireland. Catholic gardeners have been uncomfortable with this arrangement, however, so the event is now independent, a change that has not been welcomed by all. The garden show meetings demonstrate unexpected differences of opinion between Protestant and Catholic committee members, in particular a delicate negotiation over playing a politically charged song at the garden show.
The controversy is easily smoothed over, however, just like everything else in Clonmeen. In a village of this size, nothing really scandalous can be permitted to take root—not even murder. As a gardener, Lucy knows it’s important to find the source of the trouble and yank it out quickly before it takes hold and overpowers the rest of the community. Common or Garden Crime is an idyllic village mystery with a soothing tone that makes it perfect comfort reading for troubled times in any era.
I don’t suppose Pim will go down in history for having created the most brilliant and impenetrable of puzzles, but I found the solution here rather clever. She won’t be for the most hardcore mystery fans, perhaps, but for those of you, like me, who focus most on good humor, charming and believable characters, and entertaining situations in our mysteries, then for Pete’s sake get to reading Pim!
Common or Garden Crime is out of print, with used copies of the Rue Morgue reprint available (and kudos to Rue Morgue for accurately portraying the monkshood flower on its cover, unlike the designer of the original dust jacket). It can also be viewed on the Internet Archive.