As her PBS gardening show is about to go on hiatus, Louise Eldrige is asked by fellow dogwalker Peter Whiting, an elderly ethnobotanist busy propagating plants from the northwest quadrant of Brazil reputed to have phenomenal anti-aging properties, if she’d like to spend her sabbatical as his lab assistant. Before she can accept, Whiting is murdered, and on a condolence call on his second wife, the much younger Polly, Louise meets Whiting’s estranged son Matthew, an unemployed actor, and his longtime right-hand man, cool, ever-so-helpful Joe Bateman. And she gets hints that while Polly and Whiting were researching in Brazil, she had an affair with James Conti, dean of the Jefferson University’s biology department, who reviewed and denied their grant proposal. Despite her husband’s and daughter’s warnings, Louise hires on at the Whiting lab, snoops around at the suggestion of Fairfax policeman Mike Geraghty, rescues a battered waitress from the abusive arms of Ramon Jorges, who insists he deserves a finder’s fee for introducing the Whitings to the plant, and plans a most unlikely Thanksgiving feast. Before you can say sage stuffing, Louise and Whiting’s killer are mano à mano in the lab, where the villain will be upended amid propagating plants left and right.
Louise, one of mysterydom’s more engaging amateur sleuths, guesses charmingly wrong more often than not. Ripley provides provocative background on bioterrorists raping natural habitats and pharmaceutical chicanery involved in developing new drugs with falsified testing, and ends, as in The Garden Tour Affair (1999) and its predecessors, with a short vade mecum for gardeners.