Berkely Prime Crime, 2010. ISBN 978-0-425-23445-7.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 07/30/2010
Charming, whimsical and full of mystery, The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree is the first book in a new series by the prolific and always readable Susan Wittig Albert. It is set in the time of the Great Depression, and Darling, Alabama is struggling, along with the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the indomitable women of the Darling Dahlia Garden Club are enjoying their legacy—a new clubhouse and gardens they inherited from one of the founders of the group. I took the time to Google pictures of the "cucumber tree" (a form of magnolia, related to the tulip tree) so I could envision what the tree looked like... and with that in my mind's eye, along with the great descriptive passages and a setting that is folksy and down-home, I dove into the book and didn't come up for air until I read the last page.
The characters are an interesting ensemble, and it is intriguing to watch each individual unfold to us, the readers. With their quirks and personality conflicts, you quickly become aware that this is a group of staunch, strong-minded women. There are presently 12 members of the club—ranging from the president, Miss Elizabeth Lacy, a legal secretary and garden columnist, to Alice Ann Walker, a bank teller with a disabled husband.
In the midst of settling in their new club environs, and trying to reach a consensus on what to do with the neglected gardens, a murder occurs in the town. Concurrently, there is a prison break. Are the two connected? Times are hard; there are hobos on the streets, and a ghost under the backyard cucumber tree. Can the resolute officers of the club forge on, pulling the strands of all the mysteries together to a cohesive solution? Albert carries us, along with the Darling Dahlias, in the search for answers.
A murder, strange sightings of the ghost, digging for plunder hidden under the cucumber tree, and embezzlement at the bank; and, the Dahlias are determined to get answers. As we get to know Lizzy, Ophelia and Verna, (the club's officers), they quickly show their mettle. Even the peripheral cast in the story is finely tuned to express the times and the Southern flavor of the story. Leaping off the page, for example, is this description of the town gossip: "Mrs. Adcock—an older lady with a sharp, ferrety nose and a pointed chin with two or three stiff hairs growing out of it." I can just see this witchy-looking soul, can't you?
The horticulture notes woven into the story are fascinating and informative. To top it off, Albert includes some wonderfully homey recipes in the back, including a divine one for Molasses Cookies that I have tried, with great success, and a Soda Bread recipe that sounds yummy. Go to Albert's website to get a recipe for delicious Rosemary Lemonade to go with your baking, and you will be in Southern Heaven! Make yourself a treat, curl up in the summer sun and indulge in a great read. Susan Wittig Albert has done it again!
A former English professor, Susan Wittig Albert now writes full-time at her home in the Hill Country outside Austin, Texas. She is the author of An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. You can find links to her works, recipes and herbal lore on her website and the Darling Dahlias website.
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