Prowl around Brooklyn back in 1995 and you’ll catch retired homicide detective Emil Milosec digging in his garden—well, actually, his late wife’s garden. What he unearths is a woman’s pinkie finger and an opal ring. The ring belonged to his wife. The finger didn’t. Such is the premise for Janyce Stefan-Cole’s novel, The Detective’s Garden: A Love Story and Meditation on Murder.
In this book, you’ll meet a strange assortment of neighbors, pretty much all the nosey type. There’s lazy Franco, who drinks a lot and is by turns annoying or helpful; Loretta the flirt; and Paulien, who may not be the person she appears to be. There’s also a mysterious prowler nicknamed Spider and a murdered cat. Flashbacks of Emil’s wife Elena and of his late partner Mike move the story along.
Though Emil is 58 and has been retired for some time, he can’t put the garden discovery out of his mind. “‘No,’ he said aloud, sloughing off a gnawing uneasiness. He no longer had to pay attention to every passing cue. But how does a guy stop being a cop?” and later, he found himself once again “staring into the jaundiced eye of a crime.”
He begins to wonder if the woman missing the finger is still alive. Who buried it in his garden, and why is Elena’s ring with it? “There was one solid clue he didn’t have to argue with: His house had been entered, Elena’s lingerie handled, her ring taken and placed on a severed female finger.”
Since retirement, Emil has let lapse the carry permit for his Smith & Wesson .38 Special, he has a badge he hasn’t turned in, and he continues his investigation covertly. It leads him to the morgue where he has Franco impersonate a detective while looking for a cadaver with a missing finger. All of Emil’s sleuthing arouses the suspicions of police detective Bernie Bracco, who Emil had once mentored.
Throughout the novel, Stefan-Cole has a winning way with dialogue. For example, Emil thinks back to when Elena told him that Franco recited poems to her in Spanish, so now Emil says to Franco:
“Recite me some poetry, Franco.”
“If you can. Or sing me a song.”
“No,” he muttered. “Am I Falstaff?”
“What did you say?”
“I am no monkey act. You have the wrong man. I am going for beer, una cerveza; you want one?”
Back when Elena was diagnosed with cancer, she started writing a letter a day to Emil, expecting him to read the day’s letter each night. The bulk of the 73 letters remained unread until two years after her death. Big mistake. They reveal things to him about their relationship and zoom in on a secret crime. Emil then realizes she must have been puzzled and hurt when the daily letters elicited no reaction from him. Imagine writing the following and getting no response:
My father did something, a bad thing, during the war. He was not completely to blame, there were circumstances. Sometimes there are tests, terrible tests, in life and the answer is not clear [ . . . ] But this trouble began after the war, [ . . . ] not the bombs and guns and noise anymore, but displaced people wandering like ghosts everywhere.
Among the last letters she wrote: “You came to help me once, and I think you did not know the bad people you helped as well. The man in the river … I mourn that man. I don’t know how bad he really was. How can we mend the past?”
Occasionally the pace of the book slacked off, and I fought the temptation to jump ahead. For instance, almost 200 pages pass between the time Emil finds the finger and when he finally puts it on ice. But those pages are filled in with background on Elena and Emil emigrating from Slovenia to escape the dangers of war. We become more familiar with Elena’s personality and her near-obsession with gardening. We learn about Mike, Emil’s partner on the police force, and get wind of how impending real estate dealings could affect Emil and his neighbors.
This is Stefan-Cole’s second novel, following Hollywood Boulevard written in 2012. She was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and her work is included in the anthology, Dick for a Day. If you’re a fan of cross-genre tales with memorable characters, The Detective’s Garden: A Love Story and Medication on Murder will be a satisfying read.