Back to the Garden

Written by EI Weiner — These days, there’s a bit of a fashion for crime books with song lyrics in their titles and here’s one to add to the list, taking its inspiration from Joni Mitchell’s 1960s classic Woodstock. In this case the choice of title is entirely suitable because this book is set in Woodstock, New York, both in the present day and during the music festival held there 50 years ago this year.

Crusoe Larkin is the best private detective in Woodstock, which isn’t difficult as he’s also the only one in a town that really doesn’t need one. His work is mainly made up of investigating infidelities and reuniting an elderly lady living with early onset dementia and her not-actually-missing cat.

So when a would-be client rocks up to his ‘office’ – actually a table in an artisan bakery – Crusoe is all ears. Margaret Virkler wants him to find her missing sister, but it’s not that simple. She disappeared in August 1969 at the Woodstock Festival. Vivian Virkler left Cincinatti back then in search of peace, love and some rocking good music. She was never heard from again, although over the years Margaret has hired numerous private detectives to find her. Now there’s an urgency to the search, because Margaret and Vivian’s mother is dying of cancer.

Crusoe is a sucker for a sob story and agrees to take on the case for very little pay. Mistake number one, and the more we learn about this guy the more we realise that he is not the best at decision making. Perhaps that’s why he lives alone, cats his only company.

Hard to say really, because he’s a rather enigmatic character and Weiner seems content to keep it that way. Which is a pity, because a little back story dropped here and there into the narrative would have helped to round off a character with great promise. Nevertheless, there’s something lovable about Crusoe Larkin, and he’s soon on the trail of the missing woman. And obviously getting too close, evidenced by a warning carved into the wall of his solitary home. But is he about to give up? Not on your life!

If there’s a cosy noir genre, Back to the Garden would fit right into it. Crusoe has more street smarts than you might think, and inside that somewhat bumbling and chaotic exterior there’s a fully fledged inquiring mind. Along the way he’s helped and hindered by a fine cast of quirky characters, who work really well alongside the book’s singular setting. There are also some neat little plot diversions, but the pace is hampered by big chunks of introspection from the central character, which break the flow and are largely unnecessary.

This is a book written by an author who has previously specialised in non-fiction writing. He obviously knows the area very well, because the scene setting is lushly realistic and readers are also treated to tasty little snippets of trivia along the way. Did you know that the Woodstock Festival was actually held in Bethel, 60 miles away, after protests from the local population led to it being moved? No? Neither do most of today’s tourists.

They were planning a 50th anniversary Woodstock Festival this year but all that sadly came to naught. Instead, I suggest you make a date with Back to the Garden – it’s mud-free and well worth the ticket price. Love and peace man.

For more private detective shenanigans, try Laurence Block’s A Time to Scatter Stones. New York State is the setting for Laird Barron’s Blood Standard.

Self-published
Kindle
£2.37

CLF Rating: 4 Stars

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