Tall tales in the garden of dangerous delights

<i>Fish, Blood and Bone</i> by Leslie Forbes (Weidenfeld &amp; Nicolson, &pound;12.99, 432pp)
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Bombay Ice, Leslie Forbes's previous novel, pioneered Gurkha Gothic - a genre of crime fiction in which the helpless Westerner is whirled through monsoons, film-sets, frangipani and lepers by that favourite creation of Orientalist fantasy, homo mysticus, a denizen of the mysterious East who is infinitely wise and as elusive as a slippery mongoose.

Bombay Ice, Leslie Forbes's previous novel, pioneered Gurkha Gothic - a genre of crime fiction in which the helpless Westerner is whirled through monsoons, film-sets, frangipani and lepers by that favourite creation of Orientalist fantasy, homo mysticus, a denizen of the mysterious East who is infinitely wise and as elusive as a slippery mongoose.

Now Forbes has turned to horticulture. One wonders what Gardeners' Question Time would make of her herbaceous borders. "What does the panel recommend for a London garden heavily composted with suspicious bones and the odd bullet?" "What exactly are the narcotic properties of the Himalayan Blue?"

These problems, and many more, beset her heroine Claire Fleetwood. She has inherited an old Whitechapel (ring any murderous bells?) property from a mysterious benefactor. Her search for answers takes her to India, tracing a Victorian plantswoman, Magda Ironstone, who pursued the almost mythical green-petalled poppy, which had curative powers known to a strange but sensitive Indian botanist. The stories of Claire and Magda run in parallel: as well as with their guru-figures, both are involved with dangerous and insensitive men called Jack (bells again?).

The writing is densely layered with factual information and literary allusion. It succeeds beautifully in many of the Indian sections, such as Claire's discovery of old botanical watercolours in a Calcutta library, or the enthralling descriptions of a forest whose branches are laden with deep blue orchids. There is a trek through Bhutan and Tibet in search of the poppy which is remarkable for its atmospheric scenic evocations, and its nerve-racking tension. Claire has to cross fragile bamboo bridges across dizzy precipices while fending off the attentions of a possible murderer.

The Indian scenes work better than the British; Forbes's writing is more convincing amid fantastic exotica than when faced with the kitchen sink. I never believed that Claire was a real forensic photographer, nor that an archaeologist would treat the discovery of human remains in a back garden so casually.

Teratology is frequently mentioned in this book. As a science, it is the study of animal or vegetable monstrosities. As a literary form, a teratology is a compendium of marvellous tales, of the Arabian Nights type. Fish, Blood and Bone nearly deserves this classification, but it's a pity the book is packed with undigested gobbets of fact, not just about plants but chemistry, geology, what-have-you, recounted in the monotone of an encyclopaedia entry. And Forbes is a real channel-hopper, shooting from topic to topic with maddening irrelevance. Her garden is dreadfully overgrown: I recommend she should stop listening to the experts and get out the pruning shears.

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