REVIEW: Flowerbed of State

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's May mystery section.

Flowerbed of State by Dorothy St. James
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2011

Rating: 10 (Perfection!) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10)

For fans of: Julie Hyzy

When Assistant White House Gardner Cassandra “Casey” Calhoun heads out to Lafayette Park in the pre-dawn hours to do a little weeding, she has no idea that later that morning, she’ll be waking up in that same muddy flowerbed with a head wound and ligature marks around her neck. Or that just feet from where she wakes, she’ll find the body of a woman in a trashcan. A woman with hair the same color as Casey’s own, who’s wearing a suit that resembles the one Casey is wearing – and who appears to have been strangled to death.

The police, FBI, and Secret Service seem convinced the woman was killed by one of the protesters picketing the banking summit that’s underway at the White House, and that the murder is part of a larger plot in place against the President. But then why attack Casey? As the only living witness to the crimes, Casey knows there’s a good chance she’s still in danger, despite the fact that she has little memory of the morning’s events. Can she help catch the killer before he has a chance to come back and finish what he started?

Flowerbed of State is the first in author Dorothy St. James’ White House Gardener Mystery Series, and it’s a stunner of a debut. The book is perfectly paced, dropping you straight into the middle of the mystery with very first scene and then hurtling you like a freight train toward the thrilling conclusion. The prose is witty and smart and wonderfully descriptive. The mystery is dazzlingly complex and brilliantly plotted. Every suspect, every clue, every red-herring – all work together to form a compulsively readable, masterfully crafted tale of intrigue, betrayal, and suspense.

St. James’ character development is simply marvelous. Casey is a funny and winsome heroine with one of the most interesting (and tragic) backstories I’ve seen in a cozy heroine to date. Every member of the supporting cast you meet, from to sleazy banking exec Brooks Keller to fatherly head gardener Gordon Sims to roguish billionaire Richard Templeton is richly developed and does his or her part to add texture to the story and meat to the plot. And Special Agent Jack Turner is a Top Ten love interest in the making, the development of the relationship between him and Casey pitch-perfect at every turn.

By having the attack on Casey closely resemble the manner in which the murder victim was killed, St. James provides her protagonist with the perfect motivation to get involved in the investigation. Casey may be a little indiscriminate with the information she possesses regarding said investigation and a little na├»ve as to who should and shouldn’t be a suspect, but as she hastens to point out, she’s never solved a mystery in her life, and her only qualification as a detective is the fact that she reads quite a lot of detective novels.

Oh, and I'm happy to report that the book is info-dump-free! There's plenty of information about gardening to be found here, but St. James manages to seamlessly incorporate it into the storyline – a skill that's all too rare among her peers.

Simply put, I adore this book, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel. Go out buy it now – you can thank me later.