Published Friday, June 2, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Gardener-novelist says characters
grow from his fertile imagination
By Joan Jackson
Nathan Walpow decided to write a mystery book about something he knew -- cactus -- and his cactus-growing friends wondered if they were immortalized in the pages of "The Cactus Club Killings" (Dell, $5.99).
Next, he wrote about murder among the orchids. Now orchid-growing friends wonder if they, too, are in the pages of "Death of an Orchid Lover" (Dell, $5.99).
Walpow, 51, a Southern California mystery writer, says he's innocent -- more or less. Both books claim to be "works of fiction. Names, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously."
But still . . . if you're writing what you know about . . .
"People I know don't see themselves in the books. They might see other people from the (plant) clubs. But with one exception, they've been off the mark, because most of the characters are composites of several different club people with some totally made-up stuff thrown in," says Walpow, who lives in Culver City and grows cactus in a backyard greenhouse, just like his fictional sleuth Joe Portugal. His other claim to fame is being a five-times-undefeated "Jeopardy!" champion.
Walpow admits one character shows up in both books who is "pretty much based on one person, and people have recognized him or her. They say, `Is so-and-so really so-and-so?' and I shrug and give them a stupid grin that tells them, yeah, but I'm not going to admit it out loud.
"This one person, as far as I know, hasn't read the book, but did give it to a producer who lives down the block from them. Ah, Hollywood," he says with a laugh.
One dilemma, he admits, is trying to portray plant club types realistically, "because in real life they tend to be a bit, uh, goofy, and if you show them that way, they may get uptight.
"In a mystery, you have to have a bad person or two, and if they happen to be enthusiasts for a particular kind of plant, it doesn't mean I think they're all criminals," he says.
Mixing plants and mystery is a delicate balancing act, trying to put in enough plant stuff to be interesting and informative without getting into so much detail that people get bogged down. Fiction writers do it with varying degrees of success in the dozen or more garden-mystery genre books to be found at stores. Walpow tends to include more "hard-core" gardening information than many others.
"Mystery folks like to learn about new things. That's one reason we put the Joe Portugal Guides in the backs of the books, so those who wanted to know more (about cactus or orchids) would have a handy resource that they could use without interrupting the story," he says.
So what has been the response to the two garden club mysteries? "It ranges from, `Gee, that was all fascinating' to `Well, I kind of skimmed over the plant stuff.' Naturally, I've made a lot of sales to cactus or orchid people who would normally never buy mysteries, but I don't know that there'll be any carry-over to future books," he says.
Which brings us to Book Three. Will rose growers be the next victims?
"The rose people are somewhere down the line, but the next book doesn't concentrate on a particular group of plants. I didn't want to get into this routine of, the cactus book, the orchid book, the begonia book, the oxalis book," he says.
In the next book, "The Petal Pushers," the action focuses on the Los Angeles Flower Market. "It's a fabulous location," he says, "with mass quantities of flowers (mostly cut) bought and sold early each morning. There's a crime there fairly early in the book, but this time around no one gets bumped off right at the beginning."
Eventually, though, the bodies do pile up high enough to make even Sam Spade proud.