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The Serpent in the Garden

A Novel


She opened the shagreen box. Couched in gray silk was an emerald necklace, one he had not seen for twenty years. The stones were just as he recalled them: a dozen or more, baguette cut and set in gold links, with a single ruby at the center. Flashes of verdigris, orpiment, and Prussian blue sparkled in the candlelight. The form of this necklace was as disturbing as ever. It had nearly cost him his life.
It is the summer of 1765. The renowned and exquisitely dressed portrait painter Joshua Pope accepts a commission to paint the wedding portrait of Herbert Bentnick and his fiancée, Sabine Mercer, to whom Bentnick has become engaged less than a year after the death of his first wife. Joshua has barely begun the portrait when a man's body is found in the conservatory. A few days later, Sabine's emerald necklace disappears, and Bentnick accuses Joshua of theft. The painter is suddenly fighting not only for his reputation but for his life. With a sure understanding of period detail and character, Janet Gleeson creates a richly nuanced tale of greed and revenge that plays out in the refined landscapes and dark streets of eighteenth-century London.

Reading Group Guide for Janet Gleeson's

1. What genre is The Serpent in the Garden? To what does the title refer?
2. Who is narrating? How does this narrative style keep the mystery going?
3. In what place and time does the action occur? Starting on the first page, consider how Gleeson reveals the book's society and time frame. What are the social classes of the main characters? Share some examples of how the author establishes these with her language, tone, and cadence.
4. Describe each of the book's central characters and briefly discuss them. What are they like? What do their names -- Pope, Bentnick, Sabine, Cobb, Miss Lambton, Granger, Crackman, Hoare, Mercier -- reveal about them? What other writers use names as definers? Why do they do so?
5. Think about the locales and homes described in The Serpent in the Garden. What do these houses tell us about their occupants? For example, what do an indoor arboretum and a pinery tell us about their owners? How about Joshua's rented rooms?
6. What is revealed about Joshua Pope in the opening chapter? Why does the author emphasize his attire? Discuss Miss Quick's later remark to Joshua, "I wonder if our preoccupation with dress is not just a means to deflect attention from deeper worries....Costume permits masquerade -- you have only to visit the playhouse to see the truth of it." Who might be masquerading in this story? In general, do you agree or disagree with her statement? Why? Why does Joshua disagree?
7. What can a painter reveal in a portrait? Is Joshua considered to be a good painter? Who are his contemporaries? In The Serpent in the Garden how much time does he spend painting?
8. What makes Joshua's skills appropriate for his task as spy? Is he a good detective? Is he a reliable narrator and observer? Why?
9. Describe the necklace that is at the center of the book's mystery. Trace how Sabine's first husband, Charles Mercier, took possession of the necklace. What is the rest of its history?
10. Beginning at the point when Sabine hastily leaves the necklace with Joshua, how does Gleeson set up the disappearance of the necklace? Were you surprised at its disappearance? Why would Sabine entrust Joshua with it?
11. Joshua considers Sabine "a woman of haunting charms....It struck him that her beauty wasn't radiant, it was the beauty of a siren...." Is his observation correct? Why?
12. In Chapter 17, what do you make of Joshua's questions: "If Cobb had been killed to preserve the necklace, why had the necklace disappeared after he died? Was there more than one person interested in possessing it?" What other "clues" have been provided that may or may not be helpful in solving the crime?
13. Explore each character's agenda regarding Mr. Cobb, his bag, and the necklace. What motivates their interest in the goingson at Astley?
14. Joshua muses that when painting, "at best, a mysterious alchemy" takes place. "Canvas and paint imbued a composition with its own life, its own spark." Share whether or not you have seen this in any portraits. Which portrait painter(s) do you like? What does a good portrait reveal and how does a good portrait make you feel?
15. Share how you reacted when Caroline turns up dead, wearing the snake necklace. Why does Herbert tell Joshua that his "meddling with Hoare and Cobb has resulted in the death of my daughter?" Does this follow logically?
16. Is it, as Joshua muses, "destiny" that brought him to Astley? Think about Joshua's attitude throughout the book. How does he act? Do you sense that he is very concerned with the accusation against him?
17. Look at Chapter 39, when Cobb is released from jail. Consider Joshua's rundown of the list of suspects for the two murders. How does the author throw you off enough to keep you guessing? Midway into the book, who did you believe was behind these crimes? Why?
18. What is Beechwood and what is its connection to the story?
19. Discuss Joshua's last assessment of Sabine in the never delivered portrait of her and Herbert: "An odalisque in a sultan's seraglio, or Venus watched over by Vulcan." What does he mean? Why does he use such a cryptic statement?
20. The eminent gardener, Mr. Brown, says that growing pineapples is "an embodiment of much that is foolish in society today" (Chapter 33). What does he mean by this? How does this relate to the story of The Serpent in the Garden?
21. What grabbed you in The Serpent in the Garden -- the characters, the storytelling, the language, or a combination of all of these? What do you enjoy most about historical suspense?

Janet Gleeson is the author of the bestseller The Arcanum, as well as Millionaire, The Grenadillo Box, and The Serpent in the Garden. She lives with her family in Dorset.

The Guardian Gleeson knows her history and she knows how to write an entertaining...story.

More books from this author: Janet Gleeson