During the German occupation of Italy in the Second World War, the Villa Docci was taken over by them as a command post. The German Officer in charge of the contingent was a lover of art and culture and he, and the Docci family were able to come to an arrangement that meant that the beautiful fresco's, artworks and antiques in the house were respected and the gardens were allowed to be maintained. As the Germans withdrew and the Allies moved forward, a couple of German soldiers left behind to destroy the unit's records unfortunately didn't honour the gentleman's agreement and in a drunken rampage started shooting up the house and destroying valuable antiques. Emilio, eldest son of the Docci's, lost his temper with the German soldiers, in turn they shot him dead on the top floor of the villa, in full view of his younger brother and a gardener from the Estate. Grief-stricken, Emilio's father shut off the top floor of the villa and it remained that way, even after the father's death.
In 1958 Adam Strickland is a student at Cambridge University in England. Basically a good and caring young man at heart, Adam's a haphazard student, unfocused and distracted by life. His professor Crispin Leonard has great faith in his student though, and he has an idea for Adam's PhD Thesis. In the grounds of the Villa Docci there is a mid-sixteenth century garden, laid out by a grieving husband to honour the memory of his dead wife. It is a fascinating and very mysterious garden, laid out in terraces with statues, grottoes, meandering rills and classical inscriptions. But there also seems to be some riddle about the meaning and message of the garden which Adam quickly becomes obsessed with solving.
THE SAVAGE GARDEN is a novel of intrigue. There are two central intrigues – firstly the garden. Is there something more to that garden than a memorial? Secondly, the death of Emilio, is that really a crime of war, or is it a crime somewhat closer to home. At the centre of the family is the frail, elderly Francesca, old friend of Professor Leonard and mother of Emilio, Maurizio and Caterina. Antonella is Caterina's daughter – she lives part of the time in an old farm-house not far from the villa. Maria has been working for the Docci's for many years – she is part housekeeper, part cook, part nurse and companion and sounding board for Francesca.
THE SAVAGE GARDEN is also a love story of sorts, although that love is often intermingled with lust and obsession – in fact it seems that the Docci family have been controlled by love and lust since the time the garden was first established.
In fact THE SAVAGE GARDEN has an overall feeling of obsession – the garden holds Adam firmly from the first moment he sees it – he knows above everything else that there is a riddle to be solved, a meaning to the layout of that garden that isn't immediately obvious and that quest becomes totally compelling. There is also a strange obsession in the Docci family with the death of Emilio. Despite her husband's death many years before, Francesca keeps the top floor of the villa closed off and she continues to resist pressure to move to the smaller farmhouse and hand control of the villa over to Maurizio.
Not a traditional crime story in that there is no immediate crime to be resolved, rather THE SAVAGE GARDEN is an extremely well executed story of detection. Adam must solve the riddle behind the meaning of the garden. Along the way he finds himself strangely compelled to answer the riddle behind the death of Emilio. Highly recommended.