Back to the Garden
Laurie R. King is best known for her long-running Mary. Russell and Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, but she has also written several excellent stand-alone novels. Back to the Garden falls into that category.
The Gardener Estate is steeped in California history and has seen many transformations. It is reminiscent of the Hearst San Simeon Estate with baronial interiors, exteriors, and extensive gardens. The Estate has always remained in the Gardener family’s hands. In the 1970s, the Estate rested in the hands of the “Old Bastard,” always referred to by his grandsons by that name. “Fort” and Rob Gardener are the heirs to the Estate. “Fort” has already taken off for an ashram in India and disinherited. The rebellious and volatile Rob refuses to be part of his grandfather’s plans. He joins the Army and is promptly sent off to Viet Nam. Only a cousin stays involved with the running of the Estate, but since his last name is not Gardener, he can’t inherit.
When Rob returns from Viet Nam and inherits, he is still rebellious and volatile. He is also deeply immersed in the 1970s “counterculture.” He and his partner, Meadow, remake the house and grounds into an experiment in communal living. All sorts of people come and go, from the 1970s cultural icons to petty criminals. “Fort” reappears, still with no designs on the Estate, rather than a seemingly small request. All seems well until Rob and Meadow decide to have an art and music festival, mainly to showcase the success of their experiment. On that weekend, everything changes. Meadow and “Fort” disappear, and the commune breaks up quickly. Currently, the Estate is managed by a Trust, and Rob is a hermit living on the grounds. The Estate has been returned to its former glory, and big plans are afoot. An immense statue, The Three Eves, has to be moved and shored up. A human skull and remains are discovered beneath.
Anyone who lived through the 70s might remember that there was also a surfeit of serial killers operating in America. Young women on the roads were killed and disappeared all over, particularly in California. When a Cold Case investigator, Racquel Laing from the SFPD, gets wind of the find, she thinks it would fit her case, that of The Highwayman. The Highwayman is in custody, but he is dying. Racquel is on a mission to find out who, other than the nine women they know about, fell victim to him. He isn’t talking unless forced to, and Raquel is determined to find out every victim before time runs out. The intersection of the history of the Gardener family and the Highwayman is bound together.
Back to the Garden is an intricate and compelling read with King’s signature full-bodied characters and atmospheric writing.