The Serpent in the Garden Review

Portrait painter Joshua Pope must clear himself of the theft of a peculiar piece of jewelry, an emerald necklace in the shape of a snake, as he tries to discover who the murderer is of an anonymous man in Janet Gleeson’s The Serpent in the Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Joshua Pope is hired to paint the wedding portrait of Sabine Mercier and Herbert Bentnick in this 18th century whodunit where one’s class origins determine whether or not someone will tell you the truth as Pope learns. Herbert Bentnick is a member of the landed gentry benefitting from a few generations of money and privilege. Sabine Mercier is the daughter of a military officer from Barbados. They both want the best marriage portrait in the land and hire Pope. When a murder happens on Bentnick’s Astley Estate, Pope discovers that he has the same status as a servant particularly in the eyes of his patrons despite his talent.

Pope must use all his finesse in dealing with art patrons to find the culprit who stole Sabine Mercier’s as well as identify the anonymous murder victim whom he feels more and more akin to as the story progresses. Pope feels compelled to find out who stole the necklace as his reputation equals his living and he was one of the last people in possession of the necklace. His line of inquiry constantly rubs up against class prejudices even when he wants to question the last person who held the missing necklace – Sabine Mercier’s maid. Herbert Bentnick tells Pope regarding questioning the maid, “I cannot for the life of me think what you would learn from a servant….”

At another point, when Pope confronts a possible suspect from the gentry class, this person declares, “Do you honestly think Herbert will give more credence to your testimony than mine.” Using his art of flattery, Pope does unravel all the knots he finds and in so doing provides a mirror to the society of 18th century England. Americans reading The Serpent in the Garden will enjoy seeing the forces at work in English society that led upstart colonists in the Americas to revolt and form their own county.

Originally posted on Ruth Paget’s blog Belle Vie Reviews and more

Check out the Asnycnow Radio 3 podcast of murder mysteries from last Sunday when murder mystery writer J. Sydney Jones was our interview guest.