The power of flowers in detective novels

Flowers (fleurs in French) are part of the recurring vocabulary in detective novels and are present in more or less fixed expressions. For example potential victims have “nerfs à fleur de peau” (frayed nerves), suspects are “effleurés par un soupcon” (vaguely suspected) like Henriette in The Queen’s Necklace 1 a short story about Arsène Lupin. How else to explain that so many titles in this highly popular genre involve names of flowers 2) ? Flowers’ most important power seems to be the power of what they stand for. Flowering Death by Angus MacVicar (1946), Gabriel et les primeveres (‘Gabriel and the Primulas’3) by Alain Demouzon (1975), The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) or Black Flowers by Steve Mosby (2011) are all examples of how the floral motif contributes to the “seductive function4 ” of the title. Translators also give in to floral attraction. Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Little Sister for example, which dates from 1949 and introduced the mythical private detective Philip Marlowe, was given the French title Fais pas ta rosiere (‘Don’t Make Your Own Rosebed‘). The titles of detective novels often use imperative verbs to include or involve the reader or may also be in the negative form to highlight the generally glum situation. This was the case with the British author James Hadley Chase’s diptych No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) and its sequel The Flesh of the Orchid (1948) where the flower is used to symbolize the victim, the daughter of a meat magnate who everyone wants to do away with. Specialists in analyzing titles have continually insisted on the specularity between title and text: “cut off from the text5 “, a title is able to “set alight the whole body of the text6 ” and represents its “profound structure7 “. It is thus possible to draw an analogy between deciphering the title and a detective deciphering the Mystery. According to Charles Grivel, a title is

the sign with which the book opens. The fictional question is thus asked, the scope for the reader is defined and an answer is promised. From the title onwards, ignorance of the answer and the demand for it to be resolved come into play. The activity of reading, the desire to rectify what initially seems a lack of knowledge and the possibility of finding out (therefore with interest) are all set in motion 8 .

The main argument demonstrated the paradoxical power of flowers to be simultaneously revitalising and life-threatening. We shall therefore discuss how a genre based around Mysteries and crimes appropriated the floral motif. We shall see that flowers may be used as a main plot element or as an accessory because they can act as a metaphor for the crime investigation or for the detective and will then analyze the poetic principle of flowers in detective novels.

1) The life-threatening power of flowers

The flower is widely associated with death in detective novels, variously designating the actual victim, being present at the scene of the crime, decorating cemeteries9 , acting as the murder weapon or as a clue for the detective. The Black Dahlia designates the woman who was horribly mutilated in the James Ellroy novel from 1987 which was inspired by a news story about the murder of Elizabeth Short. She was nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” because of her hair, a flower she wore in her hair or the black clothes she was wearing when murdered. Yves Reuter has discussed the novel’s “monstrous” origins10 . The book has an autobiographical dimension:

James Ellroy (born in 1948) astounded readers and critics alike by the extreme near-pathological violence of his characters, whether they be cops or villains. The obsessive motif of the woman’s murder, the murder of the mother (which was Ellroy’s case) is constantly referred to11 .

In Caryl Férey’s South African novel Zulu, the crime scene provides the link with flowers. The body of a young white woman is found in a botanical garden on the Cape:

The clouds flowed down like liquid nitrogen from the top of Table Mountain, hurtling down the peaks towards the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens which flank it. Neuman walked up the path without looking at the yellow and white flowers which brightened the flowerbeds. Fletcher waited under the trees with his hands in pockets – the young man’s only outward sign of serenity. They exchanged friendly waves.

The breeze was cooler in the shadows of the Fragrance Garden: “Wilde iris (Dictes grandiflora)”, said the name card. Neuman knelt. There was a smell of pine, wet grass and other plants with learned names… The girl was lying in the middle of the flowers, a white woman who could hardly be seen behind the acacia grove12 . 

The cliché of the woman-as-flower is used to soften the savagery of a crime which disfigured the young woman so badly that she was almost deprived of her identity. More recently, in 2008, the best-selling German author Jorg Kastner published the Die Tulpe des Bösen (‘Tulips Of Evil’) whose plot is centred on tulips, the Netherlands’ national emblem. In 1671, several public figures are found dead holding the petal of an unknown variety of tulip which is alleged to send people mad.

If we follow Yves Reuter’s analysis on the origins of the detective novel genre13 , we find the flower motif used as a main clue in investigations. In Allan Poe’s short story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1843), Auguste Dupin – the same detective as in The Murders in the Rue Morgue which came out two years earlier – runs rings round the other French detectives with his unbelievable talent for analysis. His reasoning is based on press cuttings – indeed the short story was inspired by a real-life news item with just the victim’s name and the places changed. The story begins with a body being discovered in the Seine along with a garter and a hat with flowers on the top. Auguste Dupin doesn’t have the necessary sensibility to think of Shakespeare’s Ophelia who also drowned surrounded by flowers14 – in this case flowers are a material clue to help him identify the body unlike the newspaper which suggests the body might not actually be Marie:

What, of itself, would be no evidence of identity, becomes through its corroborative position, proof most sure. Give us, then, flowers in the hat corresponding to those worn by the missing girl, and we seek for nothing farther. If only one flower, we seek for nothing farther – what then if two or three, or more? Each successive one is multiple evidence- proof not added to proof, but multiplied by hundreds or thousands.

This deduction marks the beginning of mystery novels whose mechanisms are analyzed by Yves Reuter in Le Roman Policier (‘The Detective Novel’):

Although the overall structure still depended on that of ‘roman-feuilletons’ or serial novels, various elements specific to detective novels were beginning to emerge, such as the importance of the investigation, the professional detective […], the mysterious, unexplained crime, the place of reasoning and psychological identification15 …

 However flowers have the most dramatic interest when they are actually murder weapons. Poison is a common murder weapon in detective novels because it can be used discreetly. Dans L’Œil du daruma (2001, ‘The Eye of the Daruma Doll’), the French author Charles Haquet imagined a poison made up of a dried aconite and fugu (the Japanese word for pufferfish) while Anne Perry mixed poison with jam in Southampton Row (2007). Les Amours Auvergnates (‘Love In Auvergne’) by Charles Exbrayat (1968) tells the story of a murder made to look like a suicide. Among the classic detective novelists, Agatha Christie twice used digitoxine – in The Herb of Death (1932) and The Body in the Library (1942). In Maigret’s Little Joke (1957), Georges Simenon uses foxglove (digitoxine) as a medicine given to a woman with a slow pulse rate. We may also cite hemlock as the poison used by in Agatha Christie in Five Little Pigs (1942), atropine from deadly nightshade used for example in The Haunted Monastery by Robert Van Gulik (1961) or again hemlock in Those About to Die Salute You by Fred Vargas (1994). The novelist’s love of history justifies the use of the ancient poison which Socrates used to commit suicide and against which king Mithridates VI of Pontus protected himself by autoimmunization.

2) The flower as an image of the detective

Flowers may be macabre or funereal but above all they fulfil a metaphorical function in detective novels, representing detectives either through their names or as accessories. The onomastic dimension is highly revealing in detective novels if we analyze this just from a Cratylian standpoint16) . For example a strong link can be seen between Narcissa in Sanctuary by Faulkner (1931) and her selfish character which leads to a death. In the foreword to the novel’s French translation, André Malraux wrote that in his view the novel symbolized the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective novel  17 .” Similarly, the character Arsène Lupin is close to the flower of the same name as Didier Blonde pointed out in his essay Les Voleurs de Visages (‘The Face Thiefs’):

The name announces the hero’s demise as if it were a crystal ball. He was born of his name and was predestined to become it once again. Lupin dreams of becoming a gentleman-farmer cultivating his own plot of land. He ends up as a gardener and “eminence grise”. Having retired to his property in the village of Saint-Maclou in the Oise region of France, he is at last able to devote himself to taking care of his favourite flowers – lupins, the last of his incarnations18

Detective novels are extremely coded and above all use flowers as a necessary accessory to typify detectives. In the same way as Maigret in Simenon’s novels is characterized by his pipe which symbolizes his relations with other characters and his progress in his investigations  19 – the veil of smoke produced by the pipe is just as metaphorical as the object’s phallic aspect –, so orchids define the personality of Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s American hero. In Juridiction: roman policier et rapport juridique (‘Jurisdiction, detective novels and legal reports’) Claude Amey insists on the ornamental nature of this kind of characterization. He considers such accessories are among the many elements of detective novels which are made “unsemantic” because they do not play an essential role in the narrative:

Maigret’s pipe or or Nero Wolfe’s orchids (Rex Stout) are certainly “haunting metaphors” but this is more a pseudo-singularization or a fictional device rather than a clue with particular importance for the character’s depth. These are definitely clues with importance for dressing the novel but remain just that – dressing20 . 

We do not entirely share this analysis because while flowers do generally have decorative or aesthetic connotations and may serve as accessories, they have a real meaning in the case of Nero Wolfe, “the man with the orchids21) “. The detective’s incredible powers of deduction just about make up for his many faults. He is a most unlikely hero – “vain, enormous and self-interested but patient, meticulous and a lover of orchids which he grows in a rooftop greenhouse in New York22 .” Flowers can be counted among his eccentricities. Nero allows no-one to call him by his first name, hates anyone touching him and spends four hours a day with the many species of orchids which he grows in his home greenhouse. He is also handicapped by his obesity and stuck in an armchair. Nero Wolfe is thus the typical armchair detective who investigates without going to the scene of the crime and interrogating witnesses – Archie Goodwin does it all for him. His special relationship with orchid thus symbolizes the tragic dimension of the mind as separated from the body. Furthermore, his denial of his own body means he transposes all his attention on flowers rather than women and thus the orchids also symbolize his misogyny. The critic Van Dine actually considers indifference to women a rule for detective novels: “Real detective novels should have no love interest. Bringing love into a story would unbalance the mechanism of what should remain a purely intellectual problem23 “. Can this opposition between detective novels and romantic novels be translated into a poetic principle?

3) The poetic opposition between detective novels and romantic novels

In his essay Naissance du Roman (‘Birth Of The Novel’), Massimo Fusillo defines romantic novels as follows: “…a young couple in love has to face a long series of obstacles and adventures before a happy ending finally brings them together24 .” In this way the detective novel is generically opposed to the romance novel in which love is not violent25  and does not end in strangling, rape or poisoning… A woman may be a type of blank surface for projections but crime wins out over a love story. Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman-burglar represents a perfect synthesis of the duality of the character Arsène Lupin who is somewhere between a seducer and a criminal. On an ocean liner to the United States, he begins by meeting Nelly Underdown and then robs her friend Lady Jerland of her jewellery which is compared to the most beautiful flowers:

Of the diamond sunbursts, jewelled pendants, bracelets and necklaces, the thief had taken, not the largest but the finest and most valuable stones. The mountings were lying upon the table. I saw them there, despoiled of their jewels, like flowers from which the beautiful coloured petals had been ruthlessly plucked.26 .

Any nascent love story is immediately nipped in the bud. A criminal may be described as a Don Juan and so sometimes may a detective as is the case with Nestor Burma, the private detective created in 1942 by Léo Malet. According to the narrator of Des kilometres de Linceuls (‘Kilometres of Shrouds’), his office was “among those where one would meet the prettiest women in Paris” and his home was in rue de Mogador, “between Mogador theatre and a women’s lingerie shop27 “. In Mayhem in the Marais, Burma eyes up a painter’s model, “a beautiful girl and all that, a succulent flower of sin and vice with marvellous black hair falling in cascades onto her shoulders, full lips and a bodice that was just as full”28 . Flowers, the symbol of romance, here appear more like a decoy. In the noir novel Planby Chester Himes (1983), an Afro-American couple receives a package of flowers according to the courier but which in fact contains an M14 rifle and a note with the following advice – say nothing to the police, wait and learn how to use the high calibre weapon. Tang soon tries to use the gun on her husband T-Bone who cuts her throat only to find out later that another gun of the same calibre has been causing carnage in Harlem.

The “classic crime fiction29 ” of the start of the XXth century included another type of trap for readers who follow the investigation alongside Rouletabille in Gaston Leroux’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black, (1914), the sequel to The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907-1908). His mother, Mathilde Stangerson has remarried Robert Darzac but the shadow of Larsen still haunts the “lady in black” who takes refuge with friends on the Côte d’Azur. The owner of the house Mrs Edith Rance has fallen under the charm of a mysterious neighbour from Russia, Prince Galitch. This secondary character turns out to be a double decoy. First he provides the story with an element of romantic novels – will Edith succumb to the charms of the mysterious owner of the hanging gardens? The Prince writes poetry for her and serenades her. At nightfall the narrator hears a strange chant and recognizes the ‘Chant du lac de Wilis’, a kind of floral parable in which the white flowers on the banks of Switez lake are “Switez’s wives and daughters who God turned into flowers30 .” And yet one day, the tsar and his entourage gathered flowers with which they decorated “their foreheads and steel helmets”:

All those who heard their hands on the waves (for the power of these flowers was terrible!) were struck with the worst suffering or sudden death. When time erases these things from the memory of men, only the memory of the punishment remained for the people and the people kept this alive in the tales they told and today call the flowers of Switez by the name of tsar!…”

The prince is half poet and half miser and uses his own flowers as a present of courtesy – “this cost him nothing. He had too many and preferred to keep the roses for himself” – but refuses to let others see his “gardens of Babylon”. Despite this, Edith gets inside without permission and this symbolic rape marks the superiority of Mystery over sentimentalism. One even finds oneself wondering if the equally rich and miserly Russian is not in fact a substitute for Larsen.

Clearly the detective novel is intrinsically linked to a kind of game. This idea was put into words by Georges Perec in an interview:

 [The detective novel] explicitly functions as a game between an author and a reader, […] for me this match between a writer and his or her reader […] is one of the most effective models for how novels function31 .

The game is particularly subtle in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902), a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which a kind of curse has afflicted an aristocratic English family since an ancestor supposedly brought the wrath of Hell upon himself in the form of a monstrous dog. Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Doctor Watson are called to help protect Sir Henry de Baskerville, the sole family heir who has come back from Canada. For a moment, Watson thinks he has found the culprit:

This must be the burrow where the stranger lurked. At last my foot was on the threshold of his hiding place – his secret was within my grasp. As I approached the hut, walking as warily as Stapleton would do when with poised net he drew near the settled butterfly, I satisfied myself that the place had indeed been used as a habitation.

Readers think their curiosity will at last be assuaged when, in a dramatic twist, Sherlock Holmes turns out to be hiding in the prehistoric hut on the moors! The important point here is the reference to the strange naturalist who roams the Devonshire countryside and turns out to be the hidden son of the Baskerville family who wanted to kill off all the other family members to inherit alone. The analogy based on patience and skill is most interesting here because it establishes a relationship of equivalence between the killer, the detective and, implicitly, the reader.

The floral motif has therefore always been present in crime fiction in both its historical evolution and its generic ramifications. From mystery novels to American crime fiction, flowers are always present decorating cemeteries, covering dead bodies, poisoning victims and helping detectives if they are not actually hindering them. Flowers may be referred to in passing or become a hyperbolic and all-powerful metaphor for the victim, the detective or even for reading itself when readers are flipping through the pages of a good detective novel as if they were picking petals off a flower…

Featured image: Blue Orchid by maf04 under Creative Commons by-sa license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this blog post
Céline Hromadova (2016, June 2). The power of flowers in detective novels. Anthology. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

  1. Maurice Leblanc, “The Queen’s Necklace”, The Extraordinary Adventures Of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, 1907. []
  2. In the Foreword to the second edition of Le Roman Policier, Yves Reuter gives the results of a survey by the French Culture Ministry: “50% of French people over the age of fifteen possess detective (or spy) novels. It is the most read type of book for 21 % and the favourite of 12% of this population. This shows how established the genre is with the readership.” (O. Donnat, Les Pratiques culturelles des Français, 1997 survey, La Documentation Française, 1998. []
  3. Translator’s note: If there is not an official translation of book’s title, I have translated it and put it in brackets and italics with single quote marks e.g. Gabriel et les primeveres (‘Gabriel and the Primulas’ []
  4. Josep Besa Camprubí, Les fonctions du titre, Limoges, Pulim, 2002, p. 28. []
  5. Charles Grivel, “Puissance du titre” dans Production de l’intérêt romanesque, La Haye, Mouton, 1973, p. 291. []
  6. Léo H. Hoek, “Description d’un archonte : Préliminaires à une théorie du titre à partir du Nouveau Roman” dans Jean Ricarodu et Françoise van Rossum-Guyon, Nouveau Roman : hier, aujourd’hui, volume 1 : Problèmes généraux, U.G.E, “10/18″, 1972, p. 289-306, p. 297-298. []
  7. Duchet, “Éléments de tritrologie romanesque”, art. cit., p. 70. []
  8. Charles Grivel, Production de l’intérêt romanesque, Paris-La Haye, Mouton, 1973, p. 173. []
  9. Maggie, the heroine of Moonlight Becomes You, goes to put flowers on graves at St Mary’s cemetery at the start of chapter 41 to begin the investigation. (Mary Higgins Clark, Moonlight Becomes You, , 1996, 381 p.) Cemetery Flowers (originally Cemetery Girl) is also the title of a novel published by David Bell in 2013. []
  10. Roland Barthes defines the ‘fait divers’ (newspaper crime story) as “monstrous information.” (Roland Barthes, “Structure of the Fait Divers” in Critical Essays, French edition – Éditions du Seuil, 1964, p. 188-197. []
  11. Yves Reuter, ibid., p. 34. []
  12. Caryl Férey, Zulu, Éditons Gallimard, “Folio policier”, 2008, p. 41-42. []
  13. “The genre was truly born when the first three short stories were published: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter (1845), […] translated by Baudelaire in 1855.” (Yves Reuter, Le Roman policier, Armand Colin, 2009 (2e édition), p. 11). []
  14. Queen Gertrude tells the story of Ophelia’s death to Laertes in Act IV, scene 7 of Hamlet. The young woman dies wearing a crown of woven flowers which speak an eloquently symbolic language. []
  15. Yves Reuter, ibid. []
  16. Genette invented the neologism “mimologism” and showed that the Western imagination is partly based on an analogical relationship between nouns and the things they refer to. (Mimologics = Mimologiques : voyage en Cratylie; translated by Thaïs E. Morgan ; with a foreword by Gerald Prince. []
  17. André Malraux, foreword to the French translation of Sanctuary by William Faulkner, Gallimard, 1949, p. 3. []
  18. Didier Blonde, Les voleurs de visages : sur quelques cas troublants de changements d’identité : Rocambole, Arsène Lupin, Fantômas & Cie, Éditions Anne-Marie Métailié, 1992, p. 125-126. []
  19. “Maigret is naked without his pipe. At the start of his investigations the pipe supports his thought and tactile perception of the outside world.” (Sébastien Lapaque, “Simenon : le mythe en 7 légendes”, Le Figaro, January 9th 2003). []
  20. Claude Amey, Juridiction : roman policier et rapport juridique. Essai d’esthétique narrative, L’Harmattan, 1994, p. 40. []
  21. Rex Stout Some Buried Caesar (1939 []
  22. Yves Reuter, op. cit., p. 23. []
  23. Van Dine, “Twenty rules for writing detective stories” quoted by Boileau-Narcejac, Esthétique du roman policier, 1947, p. 47. []
  24. Massimo Fusillo, Naissance du roman, Le Seuil, 1991, p. 10. []
  25. Bruno Pequignot, La relation amoureuse : analyse sociologique du roman sentimental moderne, L’Harmattan, 1991, p. 51. []
  26. Maurice Leblanc, ” The Arrest of Arsène Lupin”, in The Extraordinary Adventures Of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, 1907. []
  27. Léo Malet, Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris, volume 1, Robert Laffont, coll. “Bouquins”, 1985, p. 943. []
  28. Léo Malet, “Mayhem in the Marais” (Du rébecca rue des Rosiers) dans op. cit., p. 771. []
  29. Jean-Paul Colin, Le Roman policier français archaïque, Berne, Éditions Peter Lang, 1984. []
  30. his folk tale of course reminds the reader of Ovide’s Metamorphoses in which for example Daphne becomes a laurel bough to escape Apollo who is chasing her. []
  31. Georges Perec, “Entretien Perec/Jean-Marie Le Sidaner”, Entretiens et Conférences, Éditions Dominique Bertelli and Mireille Ribière, Nantes, Joseph K., tome 2, 2003, p. 102. []

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