Elizabeth Stromme, 59; novelist, gardening writer

Times Staff Writer

Elizabeth Stromme, whose noir novel “Joe’s Word,” set in her longtime community of Echo Park, was published in French seven years before it debuted in English, has died. She was 59.

Stromme, who was also a gardening columnist with a political bent, died Thursday of gastric cancer at a relative’s home in Guerneville, Calif., said her husband, Philippe Garnier.

“Joe’s Word,” about a writer-for-hire involved with a community that Stromme wrote “was at the wrong end of Sunset” Boulevard, won praise for its wry wit and amused affection for the neighborhood when it came out in the U.S. in 2003.

The Times review said Stromme knew “how to find the beauty in the L.A. landscape” and quoted this passage:


“In fact if you closed your eyes and let yourself drift, you might’ve thought you were in the tropics, the air was so perfumed. But I didn’t. No one would. You had to keep your eyes open in Echo Park.”

Eddie Muller, a writer and noir historian, said in an e-mail that Stromme used “ ‘crime’ as a hook, not a formula.... ‘Joe’s Word’ is really memoir and social criticism masquerading as crime fiction. It’s truly a ‘slice of life’ book.”

Nancy Peters, her editor at City Lights Books, which published “Joe’s Word,” said in an e-mail that Stromme was “particularly good at exploring the lives of people living on the margins, especially in L.A.”

Her first novel, “Against the Grain,” a thriller about seeds and high-stakes agribusiness that starts out in Los Angeles, was brought out in 1994 by the French publishing house Gallimard. The same house published “Joe’s Word” in France two years later.

Explaining her struggle to get the book published in her home country, Stromme told The Times in 1994, “Most agents feel that seeds are too weird a subject for a thriller.”

Although she was fluent in French, Stromme wrote her novels in English.

Her husband, a writer she met in France in the 1970s, oversaw the translations.

Her nonfiction writing, often essays on gardening, appeared in newspapers, including The Times, and gardening publications.

“Because of her radical take on gardening consumerism, she often found it difficult to place her more pungent pieces,” Garnier said in an e-mail.

On her website,, Stromme posted columns on such topics as the dangers of uniformity in the horticultural market and the need for home gardeners to learn to coexist with bugs.

Born June 23, 1947, in Minneapolis, Stromme grew up in the affluent suburb of Edina, Minn. She attended Northwestern University and UC Berkeley and traveled extensively overseas in the early 1970s.

For eight years, she worked in advertising until she could afford to quit and write full time.

As newlyweds in 1976, Stromme and her husband moved to their California bungalow overlooking Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, a place she once said was fraught with narrative tension.

In addition to her husband, Stromme is survived by two sisters, Karen Christensen of Piedmont, Calif., and Christine Schaefer of Denver.