unemployed security executive finds himself caught in a corporate conspiracy
while investigating the disappearance of his best friend's wife. At the
heart of the matter is a wacky seed- saver club whose members disappear,
or turn up dead. Stromme's hero, who can't believe anyone would kill for
seeds, ends up on a cross-country chase with the last remaining member
of the seed club: a surprisingly handsome and independent woman.
did considerable research for Against the Grain, some of it original
(including an interview with the Director of the National
Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado), plus much of the
rest via scientific and academic texts (reports by the National
Academy of Sciences, the United Nations'
Food and Agricultural Organization, university presses, agricultural
research and trade magazines, etc.). The issues Stromme discovered in
her research -- e.g. the origins of crop epidemics, the consolidation
of plant resources by multinationals, the North-South struggles over genetic
materials -- directly affect the future of the world.
Excerpted translated reviews:
"...itinerant, paranoid and funny crime novel" -- Bruno
Juffin, Les Inrockuptibles
"Not just a crime novel, it's a novel full stop. Why?
Because the qualities of Elizabeth Stromme's writing are outstanding...it's
as though one were reading a film." -- Gerard Lefort, France Inter radio
"What makes Gangraine...so important is that the light
and lively "police" plot implicates a general picture, summary but very
disquieting, of the conditions now prevailing in agribusiness and its
promotion of chemicals, with the added bonus of observations on the horrors
of genetic engineering...We must praise Elizabeth Stromme for having found
a relaxed tone, light and gay, in order to slip us an apocalyptic point
of view." -- Jean-Patrick Manchette, Polar
"In a convincing and personal manner, [Stromme] pulls
off the feat of evoking the unlikely and apparently un-novelistic theme
of biodiversity." -- Le Monde
Attn.: Stromme writes in the voice of her protagonist,
not a long haul, by L.A. standards, from Burbank to Granada Hills, so
I figured I'd swing by Virgil Cooper's house and leave him a note.
was probably ten minutes along before I realized I was going the speed
limit. Talking to Merle was like taking a sedative, but I snapped out
of it and stepped on the gas. I tossed her herbs out the window.
the hills of outer suburbia were all around me. Undeveloped lots, stripped
by fire officials of their chaparral and native dignity, lay side-by-side
next to picket fences and shamrock green lawns. But 101 Arroyo Seco was
like neither of these. It was another kind of extreme altogether. At first
glance, I wasn't even sure there was a house on the lot.
And then I saw it,
under the foliage.
I stepped out of the car, into the wind, and advanced
on the wild, waving house. I had to grope under the vine to find the doorbell.
It was an outside chance, but maybe Virgil was at home. He might be one
of those people who never answer their phone; but if so, he was also one
of those people who never answer their doorbell.
I moved around the front
of the house.
Side yards of most homes are rarely showcase spots, and
Virgil's was no exception. I found the skeleton of a carport there, crumbling
from the weight of thigh-sized ropes of vine. As if that weren't creepy
enough, young wands of the thing dangled down from the decaying frame
like live electrical wires.
Though there were still no signs of Virgil,
there were plenty signs of his work. What I had here was yet another variety
of gardener; I didn't realize there were so many. Terra cotta and plastic
pots were stacked to the sky. Bags of manure, perlite, peat moss, river
sand and redwood chips lined the driveway next to dozens of bottles of
fish fertilizer and an orange cat busy licking them. Virgil wasn't just
saving seed; he was saving egg cartons, microwave dishes, beer bottle
caps, institutional-sized potato chip cans, even string. I could see why
he kept the potato chip cans. On the patio were dozens more of them, plus
ketchup and thousand island dressing containers, in varying stages of
rust, filled with dirt and reinforcement rods and living things.
the soil. It was damp. At least Virgil wasn't on vacation.
The damn cat
didn't help my investigation any. It kept squirming through my legs and
fussing. After awhile, it was so persistent, it even made me think.
waded to a window and, shielding my eyes from the reflected glare, peered
The inside of the house was an echo of the outside, only worse. Everything
-- papers, clothing, drawers -- was scattered on the floor. Could Virgil
really be such a slob? I was starting to move to another window, when
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I must've jumped a foot.
"Who are you?" the
He had a thick neck and a button-down collar and hair that
stayed put, even in the wind. I guessed he was the neighbor, the one with
the Bambi's on the lawn.
"My name's Ben Nichols. I'm a friend of the family.
I needed to get hold of Virgil, and he didn't answer his phone." Just
then, a fat cane of Virgil's vine swung out and swatted me on the face.
"Damn this thing!" I cried. "It ought to be arrested!"
"Funny you should
"What do you mean?"
"You haven't heard? Virgil was taken to
jail day before yesterday. It was really something -- they handcuffed
him and everything. The whole neighborhood saw it. And then today, there
was a report in the local paper..." He stopped and looked at me suspiciously.
"You say you're a friend?"
"Well, get this." The neighbor's eyes
glimmered. "Child molesting! Yes. Your friend Virgil Cooper, the nicest
guy on the block. Of course, his house is a blight on the neighborhood,
but I'm concerned for him, you know? It's hard to believe."
so concerned, why didn't you feed his cat?"
"What?" "You heard me. Feed
his fucking cat!" I shouted back at him, as I walked away.
didn't like it. I'll admit I'd been quick to dismiss seed savers, but
I'd never have pegged them as child molesters. And was it just a coincidence
that Virgil had been robbed? Because that's what it looked like inside
that room. Ok, it could've been a lucky strike by two-bit punks, or even
a neighbor taking advantage of a sure thing while Virgil was in jail.
If you'd asked me two days earlier, I'd have left it at that, but now
I had to face the possibility that somewhere in that house -- in the pantry,
in the garage, maybe in the basement -- lay a pile of empty pickle jars.
Or jelly jars. Or mayonnaise jars. Jars, you know? The kind you buy at
the store and you come home and eat the insides of and you throw them
away? That there were people out there who washed their jars carefully
after their use and stored seed in them and believed they were doing the
right thing, and that those people were linked to a club, and that one
of them had disappeared, another turned incommunicado and a third dragged
off to jail, all in less than a week, well, that was a bit much.
I made straight for
Erna Newberry's house, with one foot on the pedal and one eye on the rear
I had to drive clear
back to Upland, at the base of Mt. Baldy again, plus I had to gas up,
too, so it was nearly 4 p.m. when I finally got to the street where she
I read the numbers.
24912. 24918. 24930. And then my gut did a double twist.
Maybe it was the coffee,
maybe it was the tomato juice, but the real kicker was a couple of cop
cars and a small crowd clustered in front of a house up ahead.
I closed in on the
scene, slowing just enough to check the address.
Sure enough, it was
24970 Colorado. Erna Newberry's house.
I kept on going. The last thing
I wanted was to be questioned by the cops. But I was in luck. One block
ahead was a UPS truck, and a UPS man with answers.
"What's going on back
there?" I asked him, sticking my head out the window.
"A lady was murdered!
Mrs. Newberry -- did you know her?"
"Erna? Sweet Jesus! How did it happen?"
"I don't know. The
police kept us away, but one of the neighbors said there was a robbery.
Maybe she surprised the burglars." The UPS man shook his head in disbelief.
"I've been delivering packages to her for nearly five years now. She ordered
iris from all over the country. I wonder who'll take care of them now?
The UPS man went on
about Erna's iris collection. I nodded blankly to keep up my end of the
conversation, but I wasn't listening.
I needed a drink,
and why stop at one?
(c) Copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.
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