The Plot Thickens...

I have never seen a bag of discarded leaves that I didn't covet. Others call it trash; I call it mulch. That kind of thinking has led to a career as a mystery novelist and to the acquisition of an alter ego.

It started when my husband and I bought a home in the deep woods of northern Virginia in the Washington suburbs. The previous owners had raked the woods free of leaves and attempted to grow lawn in the deep shade of towering sweet gum trees. What was left looked like a failed Chia pet, bald and anemic. I would remedy that soon enough by simply mulching the forest floor.

When fall arrived, I drove the streets in our old station wagon and filched every bag of neighbors' leaves I could find, setting the leaf bags in the backyard like a regiment of squat soldiers waiting for their call to action. Before my husband and I could spread the leaves about, friends came over to visit and teased me about the macabre objects I might find in those bags.

Besides a random bunch of plastic peanuts that spilled out and stuck to my jeans, there was nothing untoward. But the teasing stuck in my mind: It led to my first mystery, Mulch, featuring Louise Eldridge, organic gardener and foreign service wife. Louise captured the killer of the woman whose body parts were found in leaf bags she had gathered for her yard. Most recently featured in Death of a Garden Pest, Louise skirts death at the hands of murderous opponents but wouldn't be caught dead using garden chemicals.

Before I started writing these novels, I was nominally an organic gardener. Yet when a garden crisis loomed, I ran to the store for a chemical spray. Now, I have become a purist just like Louise. It's corn syrup derivatives to kill weeds, Bacillus thuringiensis for demolishing pests, blood meal-surely, expensive blood meal is the ultimate commitment-instead of synthesized nitrogen. And compost, of course, always compost, the equivalent of manna from heaven for all our gardens, as the dishy Louise constantly preaches.

This amateur detective never fails to recycle kitchen scraps, even when she's hot on the trail of a killer. I have been mortified into an equal commitment: My hand has been stayed from throwing any appropriate food morsel down the disposal. Even on the chilliest winter days, I take out my shovel and chip an opening through the frosty detritus of the compost pile to humbly bury the garbage.

In Death of a Garden Pest, Louise has abdicated the role of stay-at-home wife and developed a career as hostess of a TV garden show. Since this book and the next in the series contain garden essays from Louise, I have to read constantly to stay abreast of new trends in gardening, beyond the rigorous training I received when I became a master gardener.

Louise thinks and breathes gardening, and her images are drawn from it. Coming home one evening after a long day at the television station to find an attractive neighbor making moves on her husband, she knows just the term to describe this temptress: "adventitious" -- like the upright roots that spring so unwelcomely from the base of trees and branches. Just like my heroine, I find myself using gardening images as I go through life. They come in handy, for when you come right down to it, gardening is a mirror of human activity, with its images of planting, fertilization, nurturing, thinning, pruning -- even infestation and blight.

Looking to the future, I see no relief from Louise's influence, especially since she has been appointed to the National Environmental Commission. This makes her all the more activist. Naturally, I must do my part at home. Gone from my bedside table is anything that could be called "light" reading. These days it is filled with thick reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

Ah, yes. I can remember, faintly, the good old days when I just went to bed with a mystery.

Ann Ripley mulches and writes in Lyons, Colorado. Her mystery novels, inclding Mulch and Death of a Garden Pest, are published by St. Martin's Press.

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