book review

Child’s Garden of Death

Richard Forrest’s 1975 novel is a an example of the “impossible crime thrown in at the last minute” (sub)subgenre of mystery. It begins with the discovery of three skeletons (1 man, 1 woman, 1 child) on a ridge in Murphysville, Connecticut. A doll clutched in the tiny skeleton’s arms and the dental work on the male’s teeth suggests the time of death at around 1943, meaning we’re off on a clue by clue gathering to find the murderer. Along the way we encounter dead-end leads, seedy characters, blowjobs in strip clubs, balloonist lingo, and visions of dead children. You know, the usual.

Our two protagonists are Chief Rocco Herbert, a cop looking to escape his small-town prison, and Lyon Wentworth, a writer of children’s books. Wentworth belongs to that beloved class of sleuth – the dude who isn’t really a detective, but develops an unhealthy obsession that forces him to become one. His own daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver years ago, and the sight of the tiny skeleton holding a doll haunts him to action.

Our two main characters are fine. They have a well-developed shorthand communication between them, suggesting how much they know and like each other. The rest of the bunch are given a quirky characteristic or two. For example, Wentworth’s wife is going deaf, so she shouts everything. They live with a black radicalized maid who sees oppression in everything. We meet a nymphomaniac who tries to have sex with everyone she meets. I’m serious, that’s what she does. I’m not even joking. Tough guys act tough, policeman decry the bad publicity, everyone drinks. (Actually, that sounds like my books. Ignore that last part.)

There’s more. There’s much more. It adds up to a whole lot less. On the plus side, the book is very readable. It moves quickly and nothing is so important that it stays in the foreground for very long. All in all, it’s a serviceable product to get through a few hours of life without washing the dishes.

So, why did I read it. Oh yeah – that impossible murder! Here’s the deal, any book can be redeemed with a good impossible murder. When CGOD presented one late in the game, I was stoked. This is what I came for, and the presentation wasn’t half bad.

One of the suspects is found dead in a locked room. Suicide is the only answer. There is a recording of said suspect describing how he wants to end it all then a gunshot and then the door being kicked open by a large group of his employees. It got better when Wentworth & Herbert came up with a brilliant solution to the crime! I rather like this shitty book now. And then…

It turns out this impossible murder belongs to another sub(etc) genre of impossible crime – my least favorite. CGOD is an example of a false solution being infinitely better than the actual one. For God’s sake, SWITCH THEM! Give the humdrum solution first, then you do the good one.

You may come across this book in a list of impossible crime novels. Save it ’til you’ve read all the others. Maybe not all the others. It’s not quite as bad as I’ve described, but it is a huge disappointment.

10 thoughts on “Child’s Garden of Death”

  1. I read a Richard Forrest book a couple of years ago — the one with the vanishing houseboat — and never went back to him on account of the mess the plot of that turned out to be. As you say, this one has cropped up on a few lists, and as such it’s always been in my side mirrors (I even have a copy kicking around somewhere, I believe) but the memory of the looseness of my first experience keeps leading me to put this one off. And now you’ve added to that,so I’ll probably never read this now.

    However, this does suggest a list of books whose false solutions are better than the real ones, to which I would submit Fatal Descent by Carter Dickson and John Rhode and…er, others as they occur to me,

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    1. I can imagine it being done well – the grandness of the false solution contrasting with the head-smacking simplicity of the real one. In this case, I’d say the real solution is simply uninspired.

      It sounds like you have a copy of everything kicking around somewhere. What’s the old saying? It’s not hoarding if it’s books.

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      1. “[T]the grandness of the false solution contrasting with the head-smacking simplicity of the real one” is, in fact, the perfect way to describe Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce — that’s certainly one instance of genius false solutions working as false solutions.

        And it’s not hoarding if you have an obsessively-rigorous filing system and accompanying spreadsheet. At least, that’s what I tell myself…

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  2. Richard Forrest is an interesting, but frustrating, mystery writer who often had great and even some highly original ideas, like the brilliant false solution you mentioned, but never was able to use them to their full potential. Death at King Arthur’s Court is a good example presenting the reader with a completely new locked room situation and original solution. Sadly, everything around this innovative idea was decidedly mediocre, but it might be the one you’ll find the least frustrating.

    What I found equally frustrating is that Forrest was able to write good scenes, like the diving scene in this novel, but, more often than not, they were just bad (the blowjob scene). He was a very uneven writer to say the least.

    I’ll add your blog to my blogroll. Something I should have done sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The idea of encasing an impossible crime within a standard story is appealing in theory, but more and more I find myself attracted to Detective novels with a narrow focus. The writer has to be really good for me to pay attention to the character’s family, love life, etc. Unless, of course, it’s directly tied to the impossibility/mystery.

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      1. The writer has to be really good for me to pay attention to the character’s family, love life, etc. Unless, of course, it’s directly tied to the impossibility/mystery.

        I’m pretty much the same. And if you want to enjoy Forrest, you should read him purely for his locked room ideas, because he has nothing else to offer.

        Looking back at my own reviews, Death Through the Looking Glass is another one of his books with a good and original impossible crime, but he gave the whole game away when he introduced a certain character into the story. However, I noted in my review that it was one of Forrest’s most consistent novels.

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      2. So, the question now becomes “Who is the best locked room writer whose books are terrible but impossibilities are excellent?” — Carr obviously wins hands-down on both categories being great, but what combinations of good/bad are there to recommend?

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      3. I consulted Locked Room Murders to see if Adey had anything to say about Forrest and he rated him a lot higher than we do.

        Adey thought A Child’s Garden of Death was “an excellent novel” and praised the “ingenious” solution of Death at Yew Corner as “complex but quite feasible,” but I can’t recall anything from that story. I’m sure Adey was right about the solution, but, like his other original locked room-tricks, it was stuck in a bad and forgettable novel. There were no additional comments for Death on the Mississippi and Death Through the Looking Glass. Death at King Arthur’s Court was published posthumously in 2005.

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      4. I think you and Tomcat would be far more adept at compiling such a list than I. Maybe “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” but only because of the translation. I imagine a lot of the poetry of the prose has been lost. To be honest, when the solution came, it was so damn good I didn’t even care about the awkward dialogue that came before. I just got “Murder in The Crooked House”. I’ll see how that compares.

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  3. So, the question now becomes “Who is the best locked room writer whose books are terrible but impossibilities are excellent?”

    This pains me to say, because I want to read more of him, but Anthony Wynne is probably a top contender for that title. Wynne had a knack for coming up with original locked room-tricks (Murder of a Lady) and rattling off false solutions (The Green Knife), but he has a very terse, Victorian-era writing style, stiff, two-dimensional characterization and embarrassing melodramatic scenes – like the killer’s final scene in The Green Knife. On a whole, Wynne was still a better, more consistent writer than Forrest.

    I simply refuse to nominate my beloved second-stringer, John Russell Fearn, who was actually good.

    Hey, my comments appear immediately on this blog! On every other wordpress blog, they got queued until they’re approved. I begin to suspect a conspiracy!

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