The Serpent in the Garden

Written by Janet Gleeson
Review by Ellen Keith

In 1766, portrait painter Joshua Pope is spending some months at Astley, Herbert Bentnick’s estate in Richmond. Pope has been commissioned to paint the marriage portrait of the widower Bentnick and his fiancée Sabine Mercier. Sabine, a widow herself from Barbados, is attempting to grow pineapples at Astley and discovers a dead man one morning in the pinery. She beseeches Pope to learn what he can about the dead man, but shortly after embarking upon his amateur sleuthing, he finds himself accused of the theft of Sabine’s beautiful and unusual necklace. In order to save his reputation, he must find the necklace himself, but his efforts meet with resistance from Bentnick’s grown children, Caroline and Francis. Only Francis’s intended, Lizzie Manning, shows any interest in aiding Pope.

While Gleeson is as adept at painting the period details as Pope is at painting his portraits, the mystery itself falters with one red herring after another. There are so many, in fact, that it appears as though the author kept changing her mind midstream and tacking off in different directions, with the end result being that I ultimately cared little about whodunit. Plotlines that have all the hallmarks of foreshadowing go nowhere. The supposition that Bentnick’s first wife may have been murdered by Sabine is abandoned along with a number of other threads. However, Gleeson does maintain a level of interest through the framing device of Pope looking back on this story twenty years later when he is visited by a mysterious woman with a connection to the case. In the end, though, even the revelation of her identity failed to be worth my time.