Go to Homepage   Nathan Walpow:
The Cactus Club Killings


Dell (Paperback), ISBN: 0-440-23491-3
For the botanically ignorant, The Cactus Club Killings provides a plethora of pithy plant particulars. Author Nathan Walpow blends mystery with facts about succulents and appends "The Joe Portugal Guide to Botanical Nomenclature." The guide contains a short botany lesson about succulents and cacti, with an alphabetized list of plants in the book. Just remember this primary principle: "Nearly all cacti are succulent, but not all succulents are cacti."  

L.A. resident Joe Portugal sporadically acts in commercials. His life, however, revolves around plants, specifically cacti and other succulents. He begins each day, tea cup in hand, communing with his flora friends in the greenhouse. He belongs to the Culver City Cactus Club (CCCC), a group of avid succulent lovers. 

But, in the wrong hands succulents slay. One afternoon Joe and Gina Vela, past lover, now close buddy, discover Brenda Belinski dead in her bathtub. The murder weapon? A Euphorbia abdelkuri. A what? Don't worry, Joe explains this homicidal vegetation in great detail. 

Brenda was a botany professor at UCLA, an authority on succulents, an activist battling international plant smugglers, CCCC president and another of Joe's former loves, who, like Gina, became a cherished friend. Suspects range from other CCCC members, Brenda's old boyfriends, to plant smugglers. When someone "plants" the homicidal plant in Joe's greenhouse, however, the detectives nail him as the prime suspect. So Joe, with the help of Gina's computer smarts, starts investigating.  

The murderer strikes again, this time killing CCCC's vice president and arranging the body in a grotesque tableau decorated with Euphorbia grandicornis and Euphorbia milii. Who finds the corpse? Joe and Gina! Who gets framed again? Joe! And, as CCCC's secretary, he's next line for botanical brutality.  

Despite the clever premise, some writing problems mar The Cactus Club Killings. The characterizations need greater depth and individuality. Joe's father possesses both elements and thus stands out. In contrast, Joe and Gina prove congenial but not compelling. Banter between them would liven up their relationship. A Nick and Nora Charles of the plant world?  

The book also lacks the suspense necessary to lure the reader into its world and hold him or her captive. More twists and turns, breathtaking moments, crucial suspicious characters and a sense of urgency would provide this enticement. Walpow creates a solid motive for the murders. Unfortunately, he fails to endow the killer with traits explaining his modus operandi.  

The Cactus Club Killings introduces us to a new and promising mystery realm. With more attention to characterization and suspense building, future Joe Portugal mysteries will produce a succulent read. 

Lynn I. Miller

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