With Back to the Garden, Laurie R. King returns, not to innocence, but instead a dark, complex story steeped in history, forensics, and played out across the varied landscapes of Northern California. Inspector Raquel Laing, recovering from physical and emotional wounds, has been shelved over to the cold case squad under the tutelage of Al Hawkin. In the early 70’s, there was talk of a serial killer, The Highwayman, but nothing ever gelled. After many years, there’s been a break in the case. Raquel is sent to look into a case recently come to light when a body is revealed on the Gardener estate. Back in the 70’s, it was, for a few brief years, a commune, known as the Garden. Now it’s a quiet sort of park and museum. For Raquel, it’s a knotty mass of overgrown secrets, aging personalities and a chance at redemption.
Cleverly structured between Then and Now, King has a field day, crafting a story that’s compelling on every level. As a character study of the free-living, free-loving 70’s, it’s an evocative exercise of imagination, recreating a time and out of whole cloth creating a place, The Gardener estate to, embody that time. Half Hearst Castle, half Woodstock, King’s creation is s wonderful as the real thing might have been. While location, location, location plays a part here – King’s descriptions of the place are exceptional – it’s the people, the characters she creates who drive the power of the place. She gets the perfect balance of complex motivations and detail to power her plot on the past and the present.
In the present, Raquel Laing proves to be King’s most compelling crime-solver yet. Her damage is deep and self-inflicted. We feel deep sympathy for her, but as well, more than a little wariness. Raquel Laing may walk with a cane, but she’s clearly capable of being a very dangerous woman, especially if she’s in search of a truth. King does a great job with her knowledge of forensics and police proceduralities. Like her protagonist, she fearlessly uses the tools at her disposal as a mystery writer to ratchet up tension and insight in the same scene. She evokes a sense of understanding the darkest of human desires without needing to hide behind explicit scenes of violence. It’s a deeply readable dive.
There’s a large cast of characters here, in the past and in the present, that King balances with professional, evocative great writing. It’s the sort of skill that one might overlook, except in retrospect. You’ll find yourself able to visit them, then and now, and wanting to meet them in their natural habitat. That’s this novel, and yes, you may well want to go Back to the Garden until King brings back Raquel Laing. You’ll hope that now will not need to be then for too long before she does so.
As in the writing to be found there, Laurie R. King was in fine form when we spoke about Back to the Garden. Download the interview here, or take your laptop out to the garden and listen below, before it gets too dark.