Down the Garden Path by Dorothy Cannell

With apologies to anyone following this blog closely, I’m going to separate these two books by Dorothy Cannell; technically, they’re part of the same series, but a better description might be “introduction of the other primary characters in the series’ subsequent books”. There’s no apparent connection between Down the Garden Path and The Thin Woman unless you’ve continued reading Cannell’s books.

In Down the Garden Path, Tessa Fields is the classic foundling of Victorian/Edwardian period pieces, left in a basket on the rector’s doorstep with no identifying information. The rector and his wife raise the girl as their own, being unable to have children themselves. Tessa’s status is no secret–she’s known the couple who raised her were not her biological parents, and is on the whole quite happy with them as parents, although she regrets the untimely death of the vicar’s wife some years previously. When she reaches young adulthood, she decides to go on a quest for her biological mother, feeling that as the vicar is still alive, she is not lacking in the male parent role model division.

She feigns amnesia to gain entrance to the house of two elderly eccentric spinsters whom she believes have some information pertaining to her actual parentage, and inveigles herself into their affections and lives and household to allay their natural suspicions of her and her motives.

It’s generally in the tone of all those Gothic Mysteries and Victorian maidenly melodrama, so there are quirks, eccentrics and misunderstandings galore. The butler is a reformed thief, whom his employers permit to carry off certain brightly shiny objects on the understanding that he will secrete them somewhere about the house and return them eventually. The maid is a free spirited gypsy girl, who is in love with the gentleman caller who’s been attentive to Tessa; Tessa inadvertently walks in on Gentleman Friend in bed with the gypsy and all three flounce off before sufficient explanation can be made…and of course, there’s both a properly vague but ominous gypsy warning in the tea leaves and also in the crystal ball. To further compound the confusion, her former employer is murdered at Our Heroine’s Feet while wearing an atypical outfit resembling a monk’s robe, and croaks out a properly misleading phrase as his dying words.

All is straightened out in the end, and nothing is quite as Tessa thought. For starters, the two elderly spinsters knew perfectly well who she was and why she was there, as her Gentleman Friend, who was acquainted with them, approached them prior to her arrival and explained what Tessa wanted to do. The Cryptic Utterances of the gypsy and the murder victim turned out to mean other than Tessa’s original impression.

Overall, this struck me as bearing about the same resemblance to Northanger Abbey as an Egg McMuffin does to Eggs Benedict; there’s a similarity between the parts of the two dishes, but one is (let’s face it) a trifle more complexly sophisticated than the other. That said, I’d guess that the ratio of people who’ve eaten an Egg McMuffin to those who’ve eaten Eggs Benedict is about the same as the group of people who’d enjoy Haskell’s novel compared to Austen’s. Haskell’s book is a pleasant afternoon’s read for cozy mystery buffs who are fond of screwball plots, but nothing close to Literature for the Ages.


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