Resume:

An 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.

Underground Background:

Stromme 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

 

Excerpted chapter:

Attn.: Stromme writes in the voice of her protagonist, Ben Nichols.

SEVEN

It's 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.
I 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.
Soon 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.
I tested 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.
I waded to a window and, shielding my eyes from the reflected glare, peered in.
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 man demanded.
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 say that."
"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?"
"Yeah."
"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."
"If you're 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.

***

I 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 view mirror.
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 lived.
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? She had..."
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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