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A Knot Garden by Geoff Nicholson

“Perhaps,” she said, “you think I’m trying to bury my feelings of guilt in a savage bout of loveless promiscuity.”

A Year of Geoff Nicholson continues with his second novel, A Knot Garden, and the reading of this novel just proved, all over again, how this novelist continues to surprise me. A Knot Garden is a mystery novel and it’s told (if I counted correctly) through the eyes of no less than 13 narrators. Now that’s a lot of different voices when you are talking about a novel that comes in at just under 200 pages. Perhaps for some readers that’s too many fragmented POVs, but I throughly enjoyed reading through the minds of these very different narrators who all provide a slightly different look at what is going on here, but first I’m going to back up and talk about Knot Gardens for a moment.

Knot Gardens, for anyone who doesn’t know, are formal gardens of very intricate design. Here’s a photo of one (in the public domain). Yes, quite beautiful and very skillfully done, and it’s also very complex. As for the design…well it’s hard to know where it begins and where it ends.  And this brings me back to Nicholson’s novel which is a literary version of the photo.

A Knot Garden begins with Fantham, the low-rent house detective of a hotel rooting around the room of an apparent sleeping pill suicide, and according to the detective, it’s an “open and shut case.”

It turns out this stiff is called Richard Wisden, and everybody runs around like I’m supposed to have heard of him, which I haven’t. Turns out he’s a gardener. I mean, come on, how many famous gardeners have you heard of? Turns out he’s on the telly a bit, runs a design firm, written a couple of books. Big bleeding deal. So it’s all got to be kept quiet and kept out of the papers. That’s what they tell me and they kept telling me, all of them telling me, the manager, the Old Bill, the PR girl, the doctor, everybody and his uncle. I mean what do they think I’m going to do? Stand outside selling tickets, ‘Step this way and see the famous stiff, two quid a shot’? I mean what do they think I am? An arsehole or what?

Fantham is the perfect character to get this mystery rolling. He’s very happy to move on until Wisden’s attractive and much younger widow, food critic, Libby hires him to dig into the case.

Now Libby Wisden looked the kind of woman I’d be prepared to keep on living for, but then again that might mean she was the kind some poor sod might be prepared to do himself in for. Either way you wouldn’t have picked her out as a grieving widow.

Libby claims that Wisden was supposed to be working on a knot garden in Derbyshire at the time of his death. She wants to know why he didn’t go to Derbyshire and how, instead, he ended up dead in a hotel near Paddington Station. And then again, why did Richard have a cheap plastic child’s ray gun in his suitcase? Libby, who led a completely separate life from her husband, also has some rather naughty photos from the dead man’s camera of a prostitute called Trudi. Fantham takes the 500 quid retainer and later wishes he hadn’t.

But Fantham isn’t the only person Libby contacts. She also asks her female GP (who has a thing for Libby) to travel to Derbyshire to the address where Wisden was supposed to design and build the knot garden, and she also employs Rowntree, an academic to read Wisden’s books The Happy Herbalist, Grand Designs, and A Turn Around the Parsley Patch and give her an opinion about their author. To his surprise, Rowntree discovers that Wisden’s books, full of gardening history and sexual innuendo also include generous allusions to Shakespeare and by the time his work is concluded, Rowntree feels that the real Wisden is indecipherable.

Another narrator is “slave to pleasure,” Basil Shaw–bank officer by day and membership secretary and archivist of the orgiastic Posthumous Society by night. It’s to Basil that Libby turns for information about who participated in orgies with her husband, and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to get the information she seeks. Other narrators include a pudgy, un-employed actor, Wisden’s illegitimate son, David who’s treated by everyone as a half-wit, a woman who worked with Wisden before he became famous, and George Woods, the kinky owner of the Fun Emporium, who claims to be a fan of Wisden and communicates through letters to Libby–initially asking for one of Wisden’s jumpers but eventually demanding a pair of Libby’s dirty knickers.

Lies, stories and various versions of events are knotted together over multiple narratives, and Fantham discovers 13 suicide notes–one plagiarised from Romeo and Juliet and one an exact copy of the note that screenwriter Paul Bern supposedly left for his wife, Jean Harlow. As various people become involved in the unofficial investigation surrounding Wisden’s death, the circumstances, instead of becoming clearer, just become murkier and more convoluted.

Author Geoff Nicholson’s dominant theme is obsession–and it’s a theme that allows plenty of quirky scope and also allows the author to have a great deal of fun playing with his characters. In this novel, obsession is unleashed via Libby’s quest to solve the mystery behind her husband’s apparent suicide, and that quest opens a Pandora’s box of other obsessions: sex, orgies, revenge, a crazed fan, a séance, and the mystery of the knot garden.

I’ll be the first to admit that Nicholson isn’t for everyone and is arguably for those with obscure tastes. For one thing he doesn’t seem to be interested in appealing to the masses, and some of his books, while focusing on various manifestations of obsession, will lose some readers along the way.

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