Serpents, pineapples, and Capability Brown

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Serpent in the Garden’ by Janet Gleeson, a historical (hysterical?) detective novel involving missing necklaces and the cultivation of pineapples, at the third attempt. Here’s what I thought of it:

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I’d tried reading it twice before and given up each time at the exact same spot – the start of the second chapter, where there’s a sudden and rather unhappy change in point of view. I’m not a big fan of changing points of view in a book, especially not so early on when readers are just starting to get to grips with a main character, to sympathise with them and, well, like them. All that hard work in the first chapter building up feeling for a character who’s going to take us through the rest of the book is suddenly lost, in a switch to a much more unsympathetic character who isn’t. The fact that we never go back to the second character’s point of view suggests strongly that this is simply an authorial device – a way to get the discovery of the first body across when it’s someone other than the main character making the discovery. It isn’t altogether successful.

This time, I forced myself to get past the ‘sticking point’ and keep reading, and overall I’m glad I did. The plot, a madcap romp involving dead bodies, missing gold necklaces and the growing of pineapples, is intriguing and fast-paced enough to keep the pages turning, and the main character Joshua Pope, a society portrait painter who takes on the case of a missing necklace for his latest clients, is likeable and engaging. The author has clearly done heaps of research on Georgian society in general and Georgian garden design in particular (Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown even makes a couple of brief appearances); and weaves those elements mostly successfully into the narrative.

However, you do have to suspend an awful lot of disbelief. Not only that Pope would agree to become an amateur detective in the first place, but also that he would keep on beavering away at the case in the face of hostility, a lack of evidence, and even a direct order from his clients to stop. Given that most artists were wholly dependent on the income from their painting, I can’t help thinking that in real life Pope would not have had the leisure to give up his work and go off on some wild goose chase for people he barely knew and liked even less. An additional spur of clearing his name feels bolted on and the circumstances surrounding that are never investigated.

It’s at this level of character motivations that the book really falls down. People do the silliest things, just for the sake of the plot, or for no reason at all. Characters act out of character or do things that are physically beyond them; their wounds and/or illnesses have a habit of disappearing whenever they become too inconvenient; and their personalities are so mercurial that you have a hard time working out who’s who because none of them show any consistency in their behaviour. Fair enough, people have mood swings but if an entire household acted so bizarrely for so long I think I’d be tempted to reach for the Evening Primrose Oil. Possibly for this reason, the characters never develop; I got no sense that any of them (with the possible exception of Pope himself) were real people in a real world.

And the pineapples that appear to be so important at the beginning of the book (so much so that entire passages are given up to describing their horticulture) turn out to be yet another device for getting a character into the right place at the right time. Rather a disappointment, that, as I liked the pineapples, dammit. They’re unusual enough to be a character in their own right!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable enough read, but you’re probably best taking it away on holiday – and leaving your disbelief firmly parked in a drawer back home.

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2 thoughts on “Serpents, pineapples, and Capability Brown

  1. Tess – Thanks very much for an excellent and candid review. I know what you mean about a book that should not be read if you and your disbelief are in the same room. I’ve read that sort myself. Still, it sounds as though there’s some solid fun in this one.

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