When Frank Blanchard committed suicide by drowning himself in his backyard swimming pool, he tied two garden gnomes around his body to ensure he’d succeed. Afterwards, his wife, Mae, put them back on the lawn in front of a tub of white and pink petunias.
Mae’s neighbours were suitably shocked, of course, even horrified. “What kind of person does that?” they asked, rhetorically, over dinner, or cocktails with friends on their backyard patios, or when they ran into each other at the Saturday farmers’ market.
“Poor Edna,” they might have added as an afterthought. Edna Purvis was the woman who lived right across the street from the Blanchards. Mid-fifties and never married, she had been good friends with Frank, and had only ever tolerated Mae. The presence of the gnomes could only sharpen her sense of loss—as well her dislike of Mae.
The first time Tamsin Bruce drove past the gnomes on her way to work, the sight of them naturally surprised her. Surprised and disturbed. As the pathologist’s assistant at the County Coroner’s office, she was the one who had given the items back to Mae once the Arden Police Department told her she might as well, since it was not a criminal case and there was no reason to keep them as evidence.
Three weeks had passed since the incident, a warm September giving way to a cool and rainy October. Two weeks since Frank had been eulogized and buried, with a big turnout at the funeral, coverage in the local papers, and an obituary in the Globe and Mail. The third morning Tamsin drove past the gnomes, grinning diabolically from their patch of lawn, she decided to say something to her boss, Jack Treadaway.
“Don’t you find it incredibly weird and suspicious?” she asked.
Dr. Treadaway just pursed his lips and shook his head slowly. “Weird, yes. Suspicious, no,” he replied. “A case of suicide. Open and shut.” The man tended to speak like that, in clipped phrases, like a kind of verbal shorthand. “Left a suicide note. Remember?”
He had, and she did. There was really no doubt at all that Frank had written and signed it, Dr. Treadaway immediately recognizing the handwriting and signature. He had recently purchased a copy Frank’s latest novel for his wife’s birthday, and Frank had written a dedication on the flyleaf.
“I’m sorry it has to be this way,” the suicide note had said, “but everything must come to an end at some point, and I feel I have no other choice.”
What’s more, the autopsy showed no evidence of a blow to the head, no marks, bruises, or contusions anywhere on the body. The tox screen had come back negative. The lab analysis of stomach contents didn’t indicate the presence of alcohol. And they found no prints, of course, on the statuary. Just two lengths of wet rope, knotted around their necks and wrapping the body.
According to Mae, her husband was often depressed. What with him being a writer, and not just any writer but one whose work garnered both critical acclaim—‘shattering,’ ‘exquisitely written,’ ‘deeply introspective’—and poor sales, this only made sense to Dr. Treadaway.
Yet, Tamsin recalled, there had been nothing in his medical records suggesting Frank suffered from depression. She knew, because she’d checked. He apparently hadn’t talked to his doctor about it, or been prescribed anti-depressants. So, aside from Dr. Treadaway’s prejudices, it was really only Mae’s word. Now the fact that she’d put those horrible gnomes back on her lawn instead of throwing them out made Tamsin wish that they had looked into Frank Blanchard’s death a little more carefully.
It struck her that the gnomes must symbolize something for the not-so-grieving widow: Triumph? Her ability to outsmart everyone? But as just a pathology assistant, certified for less than two years, Tamsin knew her opinions on the matter didn’t carry a whole lot of weight. Dr. Treadaway had held his position as coroner for over three decades; the police trusted him and his conclusions. It may have been an odd way to take one’s life, but some people were just like that. Odd.
Later that morning, she searched the Internet for Frank’s bio and book reviews and read it four times. All the praise from literary critics and academics seemed so distant from the reality of Frank’s life, so unreal compared to the ordinariness of it. Maybe he had decided his was a life no longer worth living.