Medfield author finds murder mysteries in the garden

Charity dinners are usually for giving, not for receiving. For Neal Sanders, however, one uncomfortable evening at a local fund-raiser gave him the idea for his first self-published novel, “Murder Imperfect.”

The 64-year-old Medfield resident (inset) was inspired to write the mystery, involving a Wellesley Hills businessman murdered by his wife, after witnessing a painfully real tableau of domestic displeasure between a drunk guest and his much younger wife during the benefit event.


“Over the course of the night, the look on her face goes from boredom to annoyance to anger to this look of absolutely vitriolic hatred,” said Sanders. “That man is not ruining her evening. He’s ruining her life.”

Once they left the dinner, Sanders’ wife, Betty, said she thought the woman was going to murder the man on the spot. And so Kat and George of “Murder Imperfect” were born.

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For Sanders, “fiction is reality on steroids.” His muses — gardening, the business world, and New England — are integral parts of his life, from his 2 acres of meticulously maintained showcase gardens to the observations he made over a 35-year-career in the corporate world. Many of his books combine the three in an unusual twist for the mystery genre.

His latest tale, “A Murder at the Flower Show,” details the investigation following the death of the head of the fictional New England Botanical Society, who turns out to have been a con artist. It was inspired by the three years Sanders spent as chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower & Garden Show. The book, Sanders’s eighth, is available for Kindles and in paperback on Amazon.com, as well as in paperback from Barnes & Noble online.

Sanders has been writing ever since he retired from the world of mergers and acquisitions in 2005.


“Until then, the only fiction writing I was doing was five-year business plans,” said Sanders. “I felt like I’d been working 80-hour weeks for a year and a half. It was a great deal of stress.”

For his first effort, “A Murder in the Garden Club,” he tried to find a traditional publisher. After sending the manuscript — inspired by the stories his wife brought home during her time as president of the Medfield Garden Club — to half a dozen agents, he received three quick responses, and had a representative within a month. After that, his writing career stalled. No one was willing to take a risk on an unknown author, no matter how much they loved his plot development and characters.

“Amazon had turned the publishing world on its side,” Sanders said. “After a year and a half of trying, the agent said unless you’re a known quantity or Swedish and dead, there’s no market for you.”

Sanders decided to send out one more manuscript, this time “Murder Imperfect.” A pipeline to Hollywood and a potential movie deal opened up, just to be closed unwittingly by Sanders himself. Like any good thriller, Sanders is more than meets the eye: He writes in the female voice.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to use a lifetime of observations and have fun rather than worry about getting the brand of revolver right,” Sanders said.

Hollywood didn’t agree.

With that, he decided to self-publish “Murder Imperfect” on Amazon’s CreateSpace. Once he had the books, a marketing scheme bloomed in his mind. He decided to travel to book and gardening clubs to deliver a 45-minute comedy routine, aptly named “Gardening is Murder,” to promote his mystery series.

“The best way to reach an audience is to be in front of them,” Sanders said.

The presentation was inspired by the lifetime of gardening skills he has shared through his popular blog, www.theprincipalundergardener.blogspot.com , and his time as an audience member at dozens of meetings his wife attended each year as first vice president of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.

“I realized there is room for someone who would be up there to entertain as well as to inform,” Sanders said of the local club meetings.

“Murder Imperfect” and “The Garden Club Gang,” another of his books, have both sold in the low thousands. Print versions can be found in independent shops, including Park Street Books in Medfield, Wellesley Books, and Book Ends in Winchester.

Lorna Ruby, a buyer for Wellesley Books, said it has carried the local author’s books “from the beginning,” and has sold more than 150 copies of “Murder Imperfect” alone.

“He’s doing this all on his own and we commend him for it,” Ruby said of Sanders. “People do come in and ask for his books by name. I think they get the local connection. . . Whatever he’s doing differently from other people who get their books published, it seems to be working.”

Many readers come back for the local settings. Some of his books are set in a fictional Massachusetts town named Hardington, which Sanders said is a composite of about 12 area suburbs.

“I get the wonderful thing where people say ‘I know you’re writing about Ashland, but it’s actually 37 minutes to get into Boston, not 45 minutes, and you ought to correct that,’ and I just smile,” Sanders said.

In another case, a clinical psychologist visited Sanders and discussed the four pages of notes she had taken on Kat throughout “Murder Imperfect.” She impressed Sanders by detailing the character’s narcissistic personality disorder and sociopathic tendencies.

It was because of that kind of reaction that he decided, ‘‘I want to keep doing this,” Sanders said. “In all of my years in the corporate world, no one ever said . . . ‘I’ve never read a 10K with such clarity and such promise.’ ” Now, he said, “People read my stuff and they call me.”

Sanders will be signing copies of his books at this spring’s Boston Flower & Garden Show on Thursday and Saturday, and will deliver his next “Gardening is Murder” talk locally at the Milford Town Library at 7 p.m. March 26. For more information, visit www.thehardingtonpress.com.

Maggie Quick can be reached at margaret.quick@globe.com. Globe West is running monthly profiles of local authors who have self-published a novel, memoir, biography, children’s story, or other book-length piece of writing within the past year. E-mail your suggestions for candidates to globewest@globe.com.
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