Alyse Carlson: The Azalea Assault

A smooth fit with Berkley’s line of cozy “themed” mysteries, The Azalea Assault features a PR pro from Roanoke, Va. who works with the local garden society. This book hits on a lot of fronts — there’s gardening, there’s a little cooking, and there are three pretty interesting women at the center of the story.

The main character, Camellia Harris, lives with her more free and easy BFF, Annie. While Camellia is more rule oriented and super organized, Annie is more of a free spirit in peasant skirts to Camellia’s Talbot’s slacks, getting things done by the skin of her teeth. They are a well matched pair and their living arrangement — same house, each with her own apartment — suits them perfectly.

As the story opens, Cam is nervously awaiting the arrival of famed French photographer Jean-Jacques Georges, who has been talked into photographing a famous Roanoke garden for the well known magazine Garden Delights (which is surely a riff on House and Garden.) The garden described sounds so breathtaking it seems hard to believe photographers wouldn’t be falling all over themselves to photograph it, but the loving description of the plants and greenhouses supplies enough “garden porn” for a gardening enthusiast to get him or her interested in the rest of the story.

As Cam walks through the space with Jean-Jacques assistants, she begins to feel nervous — why is so much prep necessary? When she meets the great man, her worst fears are confirmed — he’s a dismissive jerk who is putting the whole of Roanoke down before even laying eyes on the fabulous gardens of La Fontaine.

La Fontaine is owned by Neil Patrick and his younger wife, a former Miss Virginia, Evangaline. Add in the rest of the Garden Society to fill out the cast, and the author easily supplies a varied and rich group of folks to draw her suspects from when Jean-Jacques is, of course, murdered.

Why would Cam get involved in the crime? Well, her sister Petunia’s man, Nick, is arrested, and she’s sure of his innocence. She’s on a tear, and she drags along Annie, who is pegged as the replacement photographer, and her reporter boyfriend Rob.

The story turns out to have a satisfying number of twists, and while supposedly in America there is no class system, one of the things cozy mysteries are best at is deconstructing it. In this case, the author turns a very sensitive eye to girls who were born, as my mother would say, “advantaged,” and are struggling with their various discomfort levels and even guilt stemming from their privilege. And of course a garden society offers a great cross section of the middle and upper classes.

All in all, Carlson has given her fledgling series a great start, with strong characters, good story sense and sense of place, as well as a sly sense of humor that I hope will come even more to the forefront as the series progresses. The gardening is a great bonus, but as a reader, you’ll stay tuned for the mystery.