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Book: “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” by Kate Khavari
Publishing Info: Crooked Lane Books, June 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Saffron Everleigh is in a race against time to free her wrongly accused professor before he goes behind bars forever. Perfect for fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber, Kate Khavari’s debut historical mystery is a fast-paced, fearless adventure.
London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university’s large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin. Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, having had an explosive argument with Dr. Henry a few days prior. As evidence mounts against Dr. Maxwell and the expedition’s departure draws nearer, Saffron realizes if she wants her mentor’s name cleared, she’ll have to do it herself.
Joined by enigmatic Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons. Will she be able to uncover the truth or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list?
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
I’m not really a plant person. Every year I have the best intentions when it comes to the landscaping that came with our house, as there is lots of room and lots of nice flowers… but I’m never motivated to clean it up or make it look pretty (though I have taken in irises, peonies, and a bleeding heart from friends and family, which are all lovely and stick out amongst the weeds). But poisonous plants are a whole other thing, given that I would LOVE to go on a tour of a poisonous garden at some point in my life, with the proper precautions in place. So when I saw the description of “The Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” by Kate Khavari, I jumped at the chance to read it, for whatever reason getting into my head it was going to be a thriller level mystery about academia and poisons. Thriller level, not so much. Honestly this is probably more along the lines of the kinds of mysteries Serena reviews on her, but here we are and I still liked it, so I’m taking it on!
In similar themes and fashions that I have associated with historical mysteries, “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” is engaging, swift entertainment with a fun protagonist and a fascinating setting. Set in post WWI London, Saffron Everleigh is one of the only women research assistants/academics at the University of London, where she works in botany to the well respected Dr. Maxwell. So when he is accused of trying to poison a colleague’s wife at a university soiree as revenge, Saffron is determined to clear his name and find the real culprit. As far as the mystery goes, I thought that Khavari has a workable list of suspects who all have their reasons, as well as some good red herrings and misdirects. And who doesn’t like the potential murder weapon being an exotic and dangerous poisonous plant? I especially liked all of the talk about the deadly plants, and how Khavari created one especially for the story that sounded perfectly plausible. It’s not a super complex mystery and while there are twists they’re pretty standard. I was more interested in our characters, particularly Saffron and her recruited sidekick Alexander Ashtonm a biology researcher who is serious but swoony all the same. They play off of each other very well, and their chemistry is at a nice simmer for their will they or won’t they dynamic. I also liked Saffron’s best friend and roommate Elizabeth, whose spunky and winsome personality makes her a fun foil. Most of the other characters are pretty two dimensional, but my guess is that casts of characters will rotate in and out and therefore the main players are really the only ones that need the most depth.
I also found the World War I themes in this book make it stand apart from the other mysteries in this subgenre that I am accustomed to. WWI is a war that was just awful and devastating, as wars are, but it tends to get a bit overlooked within popular culture and literature. Khavari has its presence in the background, as Saffron and other characters have been affected by it in very sad ways. For Saffron, she lost not only her childhood friend/assumed future husband Wesley to the war, as well as her father, a brilliant scientist who felt the need to enlist, and died due to mustard gas in a trench. This early in the series we have the background set up for this personal pain, and while Saffron and others touch upon the grief of all these men lost, it never overwhelms the story. There is also Alexander, who is a veteran turned researcher, whose reputation of being perhaps hot tempered at times is more a reflection of his PTSD due to his experiences. Khavari makes a note at the end of the book that she wanted to be as true to the ‘shell shock’ experience as she could be, and I felt that Alexander was a responsible look into the aftermath of such a trauma. There are a fair amount of potential content warnings that could apply here (as well as instances of harassment and one moment of potential sexual assault), but Khavari is careful with all of it. Again, it’s early in the series, and I’m sure there will be more exploration of such themes. We had a good set up here that balanced well with the larger mystery.
Though it wasn’t the tone I expected, I enjoyed “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons”. I plan to keep up with Saffron’s ongoing adventures, especially if there are more poisonous plant shenanigans.
Rating 7: A charming mystery with some enticing themes, “A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons” will please those who like jaunty historical mysteries with plucky heroines.