Review of A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

Reviewed by Donald S. Crankshaw.

DISCLOSURE: I’ve met Frederic Durbin at a few cons, and consider him a friend.

Some mysteries are action-filled, the protagonist moving from crisis to crisis, always just a step ahead of catastrophe while the unexplained events pile up, until the last critical clue unlocks the whole mystery. Others are more sedate, where the clues are gathered bit by bit, put together like a puzzle.

A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin is not a murder mystery, either hardboiled or cozy. It is, however, a mystery, and in its telling it resembles the cozy rather than the hardboiled subgenre. Though it takes place during a war, there are no gunfights, and the only explosion is a downed enemy plane early in the novel. Instead, the conflicts are social, the nosy neighbors and suspicious military attempting to uncover what an old woman and her grandson are hiding in an overgrown garden filled with stone myths.

The story is a grown man’s recollection of the spring and summer he spent with his grandmother when he was nine years old. The grandmother lives in a small, seaside town, a peaceful place in a country in the midst of war. The war is never named, nor the country, nor the town, nor any of the characters but one. Instead of names, only the initial followed by a dash, such as “Mrs. T―” or “R―”, is used. This was an old style of disguising names to protect privacy—or prevent lawsuits—and lends the story an air of authenticity. But it also protects other mysteries, such as where this happens, and when.

But it’s not that hard to imagine that it takes place during World War II, when children such as G― are sent to the countryside to be safe from the bombings. G― and his grandmother, M―, become involved in the great mystery when Mr. Girandole shows up on their doorstep. A longtime friend of G―’s grandmother, Mr. Girandole is a faun. Left behind when the other fauns departed for Faery, he lives alone up in the mountains. And it’s there that he’s discovered the gravely injured ejected pilot from the downed enemy plane.

M― quickly comes to Girandole’s aid, climbing into the foothills where the injured pilot was found. Together, they tend his wounds, and hide him in the sacred garden that is the central mystery of the book and in many ways its most important character. This garden is a wonder, filled with statues of strange creatures and odd structures: a mermaid and a dragon, a screaming mouth big enough to stand in, a crooked tower and a Greek-style temple. And on those statues are carved odd phrases of seeming nonsense.

Yet when the pilot, R―, returns from the brink of death, he comes with a poem, written both forward and backwards, that promises that a gateway to Faery lies hidden in the garden, an escape for R― and a way home for Girandole.

The remainder of the book focuses on the hunt for the gateway, and the need to keep R― hidden from the military and police who are searching for him. I’ve mentioned before that this is not a hardboiled mystery—there are a few close calls, but none of the nail-biting tension you would expect for an enemy soldier being hidden from a pursuing military. The book is far more focused on the puzzle of the garden, and the searching and reasoning that go into figuring it out.

I was surprised to find this as engaging as many a rollicking adventure that I’ve read.

Here’s where the similarity to the cozy mystery really comes through. The novel’s not about the near misses of the military searching for an enemy soldier. It’s about the puzzle of the garden and about the life beyond life, where Faery, Heaven, and Hell are less different places than different paths. It’s about the relationships between G―, and his grandmother, his soldier father, and the enemy soldier R―. Between M― and the local military officer, Major P―, and her neighbors Mrs. D― and Mrs. F―, and the ways she manages to keep her secrets from them. But mostly it’s about the life-long friendship and unrequited love between M― and Girandole, and the farewells that all mortals must say in the end.

I couldn’t help but feel that there were some things missing. I felt that the story was a bit too cozy, and might have benefited from more danger and conflict. The puzzle behind the garden was perhaps too simple, once revealed. On the other hand, more danger may have taken the focus off the relationships, and a more complex puzzle may not have benefited as much from the contributions of a nine-year-old boy.

Ultimately, A Green and Ancient Light is a beautifully written book, filled with the imagery of nature, and the imagination of a child inspired by a wondrous garden. There’s a lot of philosophy about life and death, Heaven and Hell, baked into the telling. Faith leavens the story with a belief not just in God and in answered prayers, but in the meaningfulness of life, even when it’s not apparent. The garden serves as a powerful metaphor for this, with the strangeness we initially see masking a deeper pattern that only emerges when the last piece of the puzzle clicks into place.

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