The Savage Garden is a whodunit set in 1958 in Italy, where student Adam is sent to study the villa and gardens of the Docci family in order to write his thesis. He discovers that the memorial garden he has been sent to study, which was created in the 16th century by the husband of Flora Docci after her untimely death, is actually a symbolic code which suggests Flora was murdered by her husband. Adam has to unlock the symbolism behind the choice of statues and imagery in the garden to reveal how and why Flora was killed. At the same time, he also discovers that Emilio Docci (who was son of his hostess Francesca and was killed during the Second World War, apparently by German officers) was actually murdered by a family member. Adam has to piece together both puzzles to solve two murders, one of which has lain hidden for centuries while the other (apparently) poses risks to his own life.
It’s quite a fun, entertaining romp that doesn’t really feel like a crime novel, even though it deals with the solving of two murders. The fact that one of them happened centuries ago means it never really gets bogged down by a sense of tension or danger, and the more recent murder of Emilio never really achieves this either because for a lot of the book it feels almost secondary to the 16th century murder of Flora. The idea of Adam’s snooping resulting in dire consequences never really crosses the reader’s mind, or at least it didn’t for me at any rate, so although the puzzles and riddles are all very intriguing I feel like it never really develops into what I’d call a real crime novel. A quote from The Times on the front cover claims The Savage Garden is “full of mysteries and menace… captivating.” Mysteries, yes. Menace? Not so much, I don’t think (unless there’s something I’ve missed). The parts which are clearly meant to be menacing, like Adam being pursued and beaten up by unknown assailants, just seemed a bit too clumsy to be menacing (and the image of it was completely ruined for me by Adam literally peeing his pants in fright). I will agree that it was captivating though, but then I do like a good puzzle and especially like to see all loose ends tied up nicely.
As a former Classics student, I found the decoding of the statues in the memorial garden absolutely fascinating. All of the mythological scenes and characters depicted were assessed for their various meanings based on the ancient symbolism they held and the stories they were part of, and in this way the placing of few classical statues explained the entire narrative of a woman’s murder by her husband, from the reason why she was killed to the method used and who else was implicated, and all with a little help from subtle references to Dante’s Inferno. Extraordinary! I expect some people may find this all rather dull instead of fascinating, but it’s the kind of puzzle I like and I’ve always enjoyed looking for hidden subtext and inferences in things.
In terms of characters, there wasn’t anyone I felt particularly drawn to, which was a bit disappointing, although Adam’s brother Harry was quite the charmer but suffered from being made a bit too larger-than-life. I didn’t really warm to anyone else, mainly because the rest of the Docci family were under suspicion for murder (or at least attempting to cover up a murder), and Adam lost all his appeal for me after wetting himself. What a wimp!
I did enjoy reading it though, and I was hooked in the sense that I wanted to find out the real story behind the murders, which is all I really ask for in a whodunit. It did lack a little something though, although I can’t really put my finger on what. The only thing I feel I’ve picked up from the book is a longing to go to Italy and perhaps to read Dante’s Inferno, but it provided some nice puzzles that didn’t require me to pay too much attention, with a good bit of Classics thrown in for good measure, and that kept me satisfied.