King, Laurie R. Back to the Garden. New York: Bantam, 2022.
ISBN-13: 978-0593496565 | $28.00 USD | 336 pages | Historical Mystery
A fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life—with potentially fatal consequences—in this gripping standalone novel from the New York Timesbestselling author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.
A magnificent house, vast formal gardens, a golden family that shaped California, and a colorful past filled with now-famous artists: the Gardener Estate was a twentieth-century Eden.
And now, just as the Estate is preparing to move into a new future, restoration work on some of its art digs up a grim relic of the home’s past: a human skull, hidden away for decades.
Inspector Raquel Laing has her work cut out for her. Fifty years ago, the Estate’s young heir, Rob Gardener, turned his palatial home into a counterculture commune of peace, love, and equality. But that was also a time when serial killers preyed on innocents—monsters like The Highwayman, whose case has just surged back into the public eye.
Could the skull belong to one of his victims?
To Raquel—a woman who knows all about colorful pasts—the bones clearly seem linked to The Highwayman. But as she dives into the Estate’s archives to look for signs of his presence, what she unearths begins to take on a dark reality all of its own.
Everything she finds keeps bringing her back to Rob Gardener himself. While he might be a gray-haired recluse now, back then he was a troubled young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend vanished after a midsummer festival at the Estate.
But a lot of people seem to have disappeared from the Gardener Estate that summer when the commune mysteriously fell apart: a young woman, her child, and Rob’s brother, Fort.
The pressure is on, and Raquel needs to solve this case—before The Highwayman slips away, or another Gardener vanishes.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.
I have never read Laurie R. King before, but was intrigued by the premise of Back to the Garden and the prospect of the story involving the investigation of a cold case. While there are some flaws with the execution, I more or less enjoyed the overall story.
It definitely doesn’t feel much like a mystery at first, as the story goes back and forth between past and present, setting the scene of the location.
Raquel gets overshadowed as the investigator by some of the other major characters, especially with the “Then” timeline as a contrast. Who cares about the barely drawn detective when you have a whole bunch of well-drawn persons of interest, including one who is telling Raquel their story?
The time-period is well-drawn, and I actually wouldn’t have minded spending the whole book in the 70s, even if it meant dispensing with the cold-case angle. Either doing that or spending more time fleshing out the present-day characters to match might have helped to achieve more of a balance, but the latter may have bogged down the pacing even more.
And while the mystery itself receives a resolution, I didn’t feel like the narrative got proper closure. It was pretty abrupt, especially given how much effort it took to get there.
I suspect that the style was just not for me, as I’m so picky about dual-timeline narratives. But many others seemed to enjoy it, so I would encourage any interested readers to consult a balance of reviews before making a decision.
Laurie R. King is the award-winning, bestselling author of seventeen Mary Russell mysteries, five contemporary novels featuring Kate Martinelli, and many acclaimed stand-alone novels such as Folly, Touchstone, The Bones of Paris, and Lockdown. She lives on California’s Central Coast, where she is at work on her next Mary Russell mystery.
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