Connie Archer’s Soup Lover’s Mystery series has the requisite cozy ingredients: a picturesque Vermont village setting, a cast of likable recurring characters, a smart and plucky heroine who runs a soup café called By the Spoonful and hears all the local gossip. But with two national bestsellers, A SPOONFUL OF MURDER and A BROTH OF BETRAYAL, the author has proven that today’s readers of traditional mysteries will accept the occasional on-scene murder, a realistic depiction of a crime scene, and a sensitive portrayal of the aftermath of violent death.
The fourth book in the series, A ROUX OF REVENGE, is out this month. Connie talked recently about her books and her view of modern traditional mysteries.
Murder is the most terrible act a person can commit, and it changes the lives of all those involved. Do you see any contradiction between this truth and the reader’s expectation of a cozy mystery? Do you think explicit violence and gore are necessary to give this dreadful crime the respect it deserves?
I’m not sure I can speak to readers’ expectations. I approach the murder and the murder scene in the most realistic way I can. What’s important is the story and the murder must naturally arise from the story, whether that’s the description of the actual murder or the grisly discovery of the body. I think it’s important to be realistic.
There may be some humorous moments in this series, but unlike some other cozies, these stories are not exactly lighthearted. In the first book, A SPOONFUL OF MURDER, Lucky returns home to her small town after learning of the death of her parents in a fatal car wreck. She is grieving and suffering from guilt, realizing she let years slip by when she could have spent more time with her family. Lucky’s situation truly set the tone of this series.
Generally speaking, in the cozy “tradition” the murder victim is someone not particularly well liked. Often it’s a relief to the remaining family members that Sir Roderick has had his skull bashed in with a candelabra. That’s one way to avoid the messy physical and emotion repercussions of the crime. Frankly, that’s a very useful way to deal with the whole subject, although that’s not necessarily my choice.
What fascinates me in a mystery is not so much the puzzle of it, but the psychology of that act of taking a life. Not all of my murders have happened offstage and some have been fairly cringeworthy. Flies buzzing over a congealed pool of blood is not a pleasant image. Other cozy writers might not agree, but I think it’s important not to gloss over the murder scene or the emotional repercussions.
For those who haven’t met your protagonist, what kind of person is Lucky Jamieson, and why do you enjoy writing about her?
Lucky is a very decent sort of young woman. She’s kind and compassionate. She’s a tomboy, couldn’t care less about fashion or makeup and, in spite of the regard she has for others, her major character flaw is a really bad temper. She does her best not to lose it but sometimes, in spite of her best efforts, she fails.
I think we all, writers and others, have hundreds of characters rattling around in our heads and it’s impossible for our creations not to inherit some of our own qualities, or be the kind of people we would like to be. (Lucky, I suspect, is a much nicer person than I am.) Lucky’s best friend in the series is Sophie Colgan. Sophie is the dark to Lucky’s light. She’s more outspoken, cynical and has a harder edge. She gets to express things that I want to get across, but don’t choose to have those words come out of my protagonist’s mouth.
Lucky is no angel and certainly has faults, but writing scenes between her and her best friend have really been fun. Sophie injects a certain reality into Lucky’s rosy view of the world and Lucky offers a kinder, gentler outlook to Sophie’s observations.
You grew up in New England but now live in the sunny metropolis of Los Angeles. What drew you back to a village in snowy Vermont as a setting for your series?
Believe it or not, Los Angeles does have seasonal changes, just nothing as dramatic as the northern or eastern states. (A local joke is that we have it all—fire, floods, earthquakes and riots). But I have to admit, I sometimes really miss snow! I watch the national weather reports avidly, particularly around the holidays. Of course, it’s easy for me to rhapsodize about winter snow when I don’t have to shovel out my car, wear five layers of clothing and pay high heating bills.
New England does conjure up images of small, bucolic towns, each with its village green and white steepled church. All that is real and still exists there, even though any small town in the northeastern states boasts the same ubiquitous electronic devices.
Vermont in particular is a very special place. The population is comparatively sparse, there are amazing expanses of mountains and trees, but it’s something more—and I’m not sure I can adequately express it, but there’s a reason it was chosen as the (fictional) setting for White Christmas and Jo Stafford sang “Moonlight in Vermont” many years ago. In fact, I even have a link to her fabulous song on my website. I think we all at times hunger for a place where time and traffic slow down (I know I do), where neighbors actually take the time to talk to each other. We all have a not so secret desire to escape to a place where the stresses of daily city existence disappear.
One night I was having dinner with two friends who asked me what the next story would be about. My friend said, “Snowflake is such a lovely little village . . .” She smiled then, and finished her thought, “. . . if it weren’t for all those murders.” One reader even wrote to tell me she wished she could move to Snowflake. It was the nicest thing anyone could say!
Small communities are often idealized as perfect, peaceful places—yet they’re perennial favorites as settings of murder mysteries. What is your view of small towns, and do you think they’ve changed as mass communication has put remote areas in contact with the rest of the world?
Small town residents are every bit as knowledgeable and sophisticated as big city dwellers. After all, it’s impossible for any of us to escape television, the Internet or advertisements. That being said, human nature will always be human nature. A small select population will be insatiably curious about others in their circle, and will always speculate and gossip. It’s impossible to remain anonymous and private in a place like Snowflake—which makes for good mystery fodder.
I’m certainly not putting myself in the exalted company of Dame Agatha who created St. Mary Mead or the writers of Midsomer Murders, but those stories in my opinion represent the ultimate in village mysteries. Each book of the soup lover’s mystery series has highlighted a secondary character, delving into that person’s life and past. I wanted readers to feel they were really getting to know the residents of the village and enjoying the next adventure with them.
What is Lucky’s relationship with local law enforcement? In A ROUX OF REVENGE, do they work together or is she forced to ferret out clues on her own?
Lucky’s grandfather Jack, an eccentric Navy vet who tells time by the bells, is a good friend of Nate, Snowflake’s chief of police. Nate stops in at the soup shop regularly and likes to discuss aspects of his cases with Jack. It’s a very handy situation for my protagonist who, although she must keep quiet about what she learns, has an inside track to every crime.
I think it’s a given that an amateur sleuth must do the sleuthing and must be one up on the local cops. And amateur sleuths must have a rather burning reason to become involved in the investigation. At times, Lucky and Nate butt heads, at other times, they cooperate. Nate has told Lucky often enough to stay clear and let him do his job. She’s happy to oblige, but invariably, circumstances arise that she finds impossible to ignore. Nate tends to dismiss Lucky’s insights or suspicions because they’re not hard evidence. And she, of course, has no option but to soldier on and investigate on her own.
In A ROUX OF REVENGE, a young girl disappears. Nate does everything that would be expected of him, to no avail. In addition, his dance card is full investigating the murder of a stranger found by the side of the road. The two cases are connected but it’s Lucky who becomes the recipient of inside information and blows the case wide open.
A small community limits the writer’s choice of victims and killers. You don’t want to deplete the population, with half going to the grave and half to prison. How do you get around this problem in your series as a whole and in A ROUX OF REVENGE in particular?
Snowflake is both burdened and blessed with a ski resort at the top of the mountain. Tourists make very handy murder victims plus a few new people have come to town. A group of travelers arrive in A ROUX OF REVENGE, another is hiding from the authorities and one more person is searching for a missing child. The population isn’t set in stone.
In the beginning of the series, I chose an arbitrary number of 953 for the village. That’s a really small town! Don’t ask me how I came up with that number, I have no idea. It just seemed like a good choice at the time. As the crimes continued, I needed to keep track of the body count and the census. At the present time, the population of Snowflake is 950. A couple of residents have been murdered (I don’t count victims who were not official residents), one or two have left after a scandal, a few new people have decided to stay, and one baby was born.
In A ROUX OF REVENGE, the murder victim is a dead stranger found by the side of the road. That stranger is the catalyst that reopens a cold case and leads to the exposure of years of secrets for one of the long-time residents of the village. So the body count will remain the same at the beginning of book four in the series.
I have given some thought to the demise of one of the “series regulars” but it would be so hard to choose one of them. I love them all and would miss them terribly, since they all serve a purpose, even if it’s just adding color and texture to each book. I can’t imagine killing off any one of them!
Years ago, in a used bookshop, I picked up a copy of AUPRES DE MA BLONDE, an Inspector Van der Valk mystery by Nicholas Freeling. What I didn’t realize was that I had chosen the last book of the series in which Van der Valk himself is murdered. I was devastated. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! How could the author do that to the Dutch police inspector’s fans? So, I’m perfectly happy to kill a few residents, but couldn’t imagine killing off any of the core group.
Are you concentrating on the Soup Lover’s Mystery series exclusively, or do you have plans in the works for a second series?
Right now, I’m busy working on book five in this series. I have another three-book series that was written a few years ago, before I signed this contract. My protagonist is an amateur sleuth with a clientele that draws her into crime. It’s set in San Francisco and is a darker, more urban story. I’m thinking about, and have written, some sample chapters for another series—this one much grittier, more counterculture and set in Los Angeles. I’d be over the moon if my agent finds a home for either of these two series.
Connie Archer is the national bestselling author of A Spoonful of Murder and A Broth of Betrayal, the soup lover’s mystery series set in Vermont, from Berkley Prime Crime. The third book in the series, A Roux of Revenge, will be released on April 1, 2014. Connie was born and raised in New England. She now lives on the other coast.