Book reviews: ‘Back to the Garden’ launches new series; a return to the ‘Usual Peacocks’


‘Back to the Garden’ by Laurie R. King. Bantam, 336 pages, $28

For the past 20 or so novels and novellas, Laurie R. King has delivered gripping, award-winning books about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, stories so intricately linked to the Holmes oeuvre that her work has earned the respect of Baker Street Irregulars and other Sherlockians.


In “Back to the Garden,” King takes a break from Russell and Holmes, who are no doubt on some fabulous journey or home tending to those bees, gearing up for their next adventure that King is working on.

King takes a decidedly contemporary approach in the superb “Back to the Garden,” a solid police procedural, a story of obsession and a look at how work shapes a personality, all steeped in California lore and history. “Back to the Garden” starts strong and never loses momentum as it accelerates to an intense ending.


Insp. Raquel Laing, of the San Francisco Police Department’s Cold Case Unit, has been working on an investigation into Michael Johnston, who was known as the Highwayman, a serial killer who roamed the San Francisco Bay area during the 1970s, preying on young hitchhikers.

Johnston is now in his 80s and riddled with cancer. Raquel wants to find the identity of as many of his victims as possible as he “drifted slowly toward his death” in the hospital, surrounded by armed guards.

The investigation takes Raquel to the Gardener Estate near Palo Alto, where skeletal remains have been uncovered, buried decades ago under a huge sculpture that is now being repositioned. Raquel wants to find out if the body was one of Johnston’s victims.

The Gardener Estate, with its breathtaking gardens, has become a favorite of tourists and residents. The estate was once the home of one of California’s most influential families. Rob Gardener, the grandson who still lives as a near hermit on the grounds, turned the estate into a hippie commune during the 1970s.

King opens a California time capsule for the characters — and the readers — as the action smoothly moves from the present to the 1970s, showing how and why Rob, fresh from fighting in Vietnam, turned the estate into a commune meant to be a place of happiness where residents were often moving in and out. The sophisticated plot delivers a story rich in texture and scenery — one can easily visualize the “wisteria gazebo” and almost smell the blossoms that dot the estate.

The complicated Raquel, with her uncanny insight into personalities and her awkward social skills, is an intriguing character who can support a series. Readers will get a chance to learn more about this multi-layered character as “Back to the Garden” is a series launch.

“Back to the Garden” is storytelling at its best.

‘Round Up the Usual Peacocks’ by Donna Andrews. Minotaur, 304 pages, $26.99


Some series have longevity because the author imbues novel after novel with an enthusiasm for storytelling, an affection for the characters and a way of inviting the reader to return to the world created in these plots.


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That’s why readers continue to flock to Donna Andrews’ enjoyable, light novels about blacksmith and amateur sleuth Meg Langslow, making her 31st appearance in the amusing “Round Up the Usual Peacocks.”

Andrews has shaped Meg as an intelligent, insightful sleuth. She doesn’t take chances, lets people know where she will be instead of going off by herself, has earned the respect of the local law enforcement and willingly shares any information with the police.

In “Round Up the Usual Peacocks,” a wedding is in the works as Meg’s brother Rob and his longtime fianc?e Delaney are getting married, a situation that has brought myriad relatives to Caerphilly, Va. This is the same setup that launched Andrews’ debut “Murder With Peacocks,” 31 novels ago. The peacocks are the request of Meg’s and Rob’s mother, who wants as many peacocks as can be found to grace the reception as their own flock is in the molting stage. (And, yes, they know peacocks can be temperamental but there is no reasoning with Meg’s mother who is in wedding-fever mode.)

As a bridesmaid, Meg knows she has certain duties but feels she’s being pecked to death with all the little errands requested by her mother. Meg more than welcomes helping her cousin Kevin, who, with his friend Casey, just launched the Virginia Crime Time podcast. Casey was almost the victim of a hit and run following their broadcast about two local crimes — a 26-year-old cheating scandal that led to a professor’s suicide and a decades-old disappearance of a talented singer. Kevin wants to know which podcast triggered the near-accident, but that would mean — gasp! — actually talking to people and Kevin prefers staying in the basement surrounded by his computers and rambunctious Pomeranians. Meg, of course, likes talking to people and has a talent for drawing out even the most reluctant witness.

“Round Up the Usual Peacocks” moves at a brisk clip as the plot settles in with an enjoyable visit with Meg. A series hallmark is that Meg has a strong marriage, a good relationship with her twin sons and enjoys being around her far-flung family, even though they can occasionally get on her nerves. Andrews punctuates the story with just the right amount of humor — like Meg’s mother insisting her family sort out the green confetti from the blue because it’s “the wrong green.”


Andrews’ entertaining series again takes flight with “Round Up the Usual Peacocks.”

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at


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