garden as literary device

The Rottweiler, by Ruth Rendell was a great holiday read. I'm not that keen on who-done-its, but in this crime novel the formula is different. You find out who the murderer is quite early in the book, and follow his dastardly actions trying to avoid being caught.

The story is set in London, and reflects a precise sense of place. The relevance to this blog is Rendell's use of garden descriptions as a literary device - to amplify the suspense, to reflect the feelings of the characters, or simply to mark a transition in the development of the plot.

A rundown garden is portrayed as a possible sinister hiding place for a dead body.
Weeds can be regarded as symbolically representing the triumph of the dangerously wild and uncontrollable in relation to civilized society.

At the rear ... was a small garden... The walls which enclosed it were so thickly hung with ivy that no brickwork could be seen, while the area in the middle was mostly covered with large concrete slabs between which weeds were starting to sprout. But just inside the walls were narrow borders of earth scattered with bricks and pebbles and broken shards of pottery, where scrubby bushes struggled and the the withered stalks of golden rod and Michaelmas daisies and fireweed still lingered.

Other gardens are shrouded in mystery, hidden spaces.

Sixth Avenue was a long street of houses in long terraces. It was in most cases impossible to see what the back of these houses were like. Still, where a terrace ended and another began the spaces between the last house in one row and the first in the next afforded him a glimpse of grass, bushes, part of a shed.

These gardens contrast dramatically with Rendell's description of a lovely neat garden. In this garden all is gentle and benign, no life and death struggles here ... on the surface at least, because after all this is a thriller ...

The clocks had gone forward and it would be an hour before the sun set. Its late afternoon warmth, golden and benign, was bringing into flower his tulips in their green-painted tubs and his yellow jonquils. One of the little bay trees was in golden blossom, for the first since he had bought it. On the table stood a blue and white pottery jar filled with pink and yellow and lilac freesias, beautiful things with a delectable perfume.

And near the end of the book when the murderer's end is near ...

The first flower of the season had opened on his climbing rose. He couldn't remember its name. Its colour was an indifferent pale-pink but its scent, as promised in the cataloque, was exquisite, like ripe oranges and jasmine with a touch of nutmeg. He brought his face down to the flower, his nose to the heart of it... it would be the last rose he was ever to smell, the last rose of his summer.

Ruth Rendell is a creative, skilled and prolific writer of crime novels. Judging from the garden descriptions interspersed throughout the story, I think she must be a gardener as well.


  1. Wonderful post.Hope you can share more like this when you come across it.
    cheers Ian

  2. Dear Catmint, What an intriguing posting. I had just about given up on Ruth Rendell having read her avidly in my youth, but this has whetted my appetite to read her once again at least.

    Yes, the garden as a literary device is a most interesting concept and your posting has made me think about other novels in which a garden or gardens have played significant roles.

    I do so hope that your corner of the world is returning to normalty after the floods. You have been in my thoughts.

  3. Ruth Rendell is new to me but any recommendation by someone who quotes Leonard Cohen carries much weight.
    Found you through Edith Hope & paln on visiting often.

  4. I'm not that keen on Ruth Rendall but always thought a gardener would make a good detective. Acute observation and skullduggery behind the compost heap!

  5. Catmint I just finished my very first Ruth Rendell mystery last night! Road Rage was the title, and I so thoroughly enjoyed it, I cannot wait to read her others.

    I'll give this one a try too, thanks for the review :)

  6. This sounds like a good read and I think you're right, she must be a gardener! I think I'll check this one out..Thanks for sharing :)

  7. Ooooh, I always love a good thriller. Thanks!

  8. Wow catmint, thanks for sharing. Frankly, I don't read crime novels. But your short synnopsis is good. I am sure many will read this book. BTw, that rundown garden a possible hidding place for a dead body?... scary he he...

  9. Hi Ian, so pleased you liked the post.

    Hi Edith, I find it interesting how gardens are used in fiction, even if it a very minor part of the story. The floods haven't affected me directly, thanks for caring.

    Hi Sandra, Lovely to meet you, fellow Leonard Cohen fan.

    Hi Hermes, wonderful phrase: skullduggery behind the compost heap! Makes me smile.

    Hi Ali, what a coincidence, we're both reading RR at the same time!

    Hi Rebecca, hope you enjoy the book.

    Hi TVF, thanks for the comment.

    Hi Stephanie, definitely scary ... not to be visited in the dark ... he he

    Cheers, catmint


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