By Wendy Tyson
Leslie Budewitz cooks up a tantalizing mystery with her latest in the Spice Shop series, KILLING THYME. Set in Seattle’s lush Pike Place Market, KILLING THYME is a feast for the senses—with a murderous twist. Spice Shop owner and amateur sleuth Pepper Reece discovers that a Market newbie is a friend who disappeared years ago. When this friend is murdered days later, Pepper is determined to find the killer, only her search for the truth could have deadly consequences.
Leslie recently sat down with The Big Thrill to chat about the cozy genre, the marriage of food and fiction, and her (excellent!) advice for aspiring authors.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of KILLING THYME, the third of the Spice Shop mysteries, a series Suspense Magazine calls “Pure enjoyment.” Please tell us something about KILLING THYME that is not on the back cover.
Readers will learn about salt pigs, art cars, ghost nets, and a troubled time in Seattle’s history. They’ll discover a dozen new recipes using thyme, and find out Pepper’s real name.
Setting is an important aspect of your novels. You write another popular series, the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional town in your home state of Montana. The Spice Shop Mysteries, on the other hand, are set in Seattle. Why did you choose big-city Seattle? What have been the challenges of choosing a real-life locale as the backdrop for your books?
The urban cozy is less common than its small-town sibling, but I love exploring a city through the cozy lens, because to me, the focus of a cozy is the community. Cities all have communities within the community, and the Pike Place Market is the perfect example. Imagine a year-round farmers’ market, 200 artists and craftspeople who rent day stalls, 200 owner-operated shops and services, and 100 restaurants, plus 350 residents—all on nine acres. The Market is a microcosm of Seattle, as well as its stomach and a key part of its history and landscape. I fell in love with the Market and the city as a college student nearly 40 years ago, and when I decided to start a second series, it seemed perfect.
Debut author Alexis Gordon hits the right notes with MURDER IN G MAJOR. Stranded without luggage or money in the Irish countryside, African-American classical musician Gethsemane Brown accepts a less-than-ideal position turning a group of rowdy schoolboys into an award-winning orchestra. The perk? Housesitting a lovely cliff-side cottage. The catch? The ghost of the cottage’s murdered owner haunts the place. Falsely accused of killing his wife (and himself), he begs Gethsemane to clear his name so he can rest in peace.
Alexis Gordon won her first writing prize in the 6th grade. After establishing her medical career in El Paso, she returned to writing fiction. Her other interests—the symphony, art collecting, embroidery, and ghost stories—are star attractions in her novels.
MURDER IN G MAJOR features a small town in Ireland. Do you have a special connection to the area?
I am a Hibernophile. I love all things Irish—the music, the pubs, the whiskey, the accent, the language, the landscape. I visited the eastern part of Ireland several years ago and I’m returning to visit the southwestern parts this month, a present to myself to celebrate the publication of my novel.
Sounds as if Gethsemane Brown might be taking a road trip in an upcoming novel. I understand you love descriptions that transport you into the story. Can we expect to find your Irish town becoming a character in your books?
I do love stories where the place is as much a character as the people. Where would Alice be without Wonderland? Yes, I see my village as a character. I want readers to feel as if they are actually in Dunmullach with Gethsemane, O’Reilly, Grennan, and the others.
When I slip my writer hat off and slip on my reader one (which isn’t as often as I’d like) I enjoy losing myself in a cozy mystery. Give me a country house, or a village, or some other tight knit community with a murderer running loose and I’m a happy girl. So I’m delighted to be interviewing Joyce about her Brew series.
Is the Allegheny Brew House based on an actual brewery?
It’s a figment of my imagination. In the first book, To Brew or Not to Brew, Max buys a building in which to open her brewpub, that had been part of the old Steel City Brewing Co.—which is fictional, too! There really is an Iron City Brewing and I lifted a bit of their history and gave it to Steel City.
And is the brewing festival based on any festival you’ve been to?
Pittsburgh has a lot of festivals, but I don’t think we’ve ever had one with brews and burgers. We seem to keep the food festivals and the beer festivals separate. I’m not sure why.
I’m not either. In the UK we’d make sure the two were together.
What inspired you to start writing crime stories? Was it your career as a police secretary?
I’ve always liked to write. I was jotting down stories well before my part-time job as a police secretary. In seventh grade—this was back in about 1969? (I don’t do math—I’m a writer!)—we had to compose our autobiographies and extend them to the year 2000. I may have had the writing bug before that, but that’s the first example I can think of. It was a wonderful piece of fiction, by the way.
By J. H. Bográn
There´s an old Frank Sinatra song called “Love and Marriage” that claims the two go together like a horse and carriage. I, for one, find the same kind of link between books and coffee. They make a perfect blend of adrenaline rush and suspense. Waiting for your next cup of java is Lynn Cahoon’s latest entry in her Tourist Trap mystery series. She delivers the goods, which goes equally well with tea in this case.
Best-selling author Cahoon sat down with The Big Thrill to talk about TEA CUPS AND CARNAGE, the second novel in the series to feature progatonist Jill Gardner.
What is the new novel about?
The quaint coastal town of South Cove, California, is all abuzz about the opening of a new specialty shop, Tea Hee. But as Coffee, Books, and More owner Jill Gardner is about to find out, there’s nothing cozy about murder . . .
How did Jill Gardner come into the picture?
She’s the me I wanted to be; the woman who took a chance when she wasn’t happy with her life. I always seemed to let things happen. At the time, I was in the process of a divorce that I had initiated. I found the house that I modeled Miss Emily’s home after and South Cove was born from there.
What can we expect from her in this new adventure?
In TEA CUPS AND CARNAGE, Jill has to deal with a lot on her plate, including a new business moving into town that could be competition. When a body is found at the no-tell motel on the coastal highway out of town, she has to figure out if her newest business member of South Cove is not only a former beauty queen, but also a murderer.
By George Ebey
This month, author Marla Cooper brings us TERROR IN TAFFET, the first installment in her Destination Wedding mystery series.
Kelsey McKenna thinks she’d planned out every detail of her client’s destination wedding in San Miguel de Allende. But what she hadn’t planned on was a bridesmaid dropping dead in the middle of the ceremony. When the bride’s sister is arrested for murder, the mother of the bride demands that Kelsea fix the matter at once. Although Kelsea is pretty sure investigating a murder isn’t in her contract, crossing the well-connected Mrs. Abemathy could be a career-killer. Before she can leave Mexico and get back to planning weddings, Kelsey will have to deal with stubborn detectives, late-night death threats, and guests who didn’t even RSVP.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Cooper to learn about her work and what goes into writing a good cozy mystery.
What first drew you to writing mysteries?
I often blame my early addiction to Nancy Drew, who taught me at a young age that girl detectives get to drive roadsters and date college guys. And there’s also the fact that I was born in October so I love things that are dark and ghoulish. But if I’m really psychoanalyzing myself, it’s the justice aspect of it. There’s something so satisfying about piecing together the clues, figuring out whodunit, and bringing the bad guys to justice.
Tell us about your main character, Kelsey McKenna.
Kelsey is a destination wedding planner, and it’s up to her to make sure her clients’ weddings go off without a hitch, all while wrangling errant wedding guests, petulant bridesmaids, and demanding mothers-of-the-bride. She’s organized, resourceful, and good at improvising, which comes in handy when anything goes wrong. And at a wedding, something always seems to go wrong.
She doesn’t set out to be a sleuth, but then one of the bridesmaids drops dead in the middle of a wedding in San Miguel de Allende. And when a member of the wedding party is arrested for the murder, Kelsey can’t help but get involved.
By Basil Sands
THE CALAMITY CAFÉ is an appetizing cozy mystery that leaves your mouth watering for great cooking, even as you’re shocked by what people will do to each other. And even better—there are recipes included in the back! As an avid cook, I will definitely be trying some out.
Gayle Leeson is an author who makes an imprint with her witty storytelling, compelling mystery thrills, and some seriously delicious-looking recipes. She also writes the Embroidery Mystery series as Amanda Lee, and as Gayle Trent for the Daphne Martin Cake Mystery series and the Myrtle Crumb Mystery series.
Leeson lives in Virginia with her family and is having a blast writing the Down South Café Mystery series. I had a chance to catch up with her this month for an article in The Big Thrill.
So, which Gayle is the real you?
Although my real name is Gayle Trent, I suppose I’m all of those Gayles. At least, sometimes I wish I had a couple more of me since I wear so many hats in a day. I’m a writer, of course, but also a blogger, a new columnist for RT Book Reviews Magazine, a mom, a wife, and I’m owned by pets who are pretty demanding.
How did you get into writing?
I’d read a book that was formulaic and predictable, and then I wrote a short story to parody that book and others similar to it. I allowed my college English teachers to read it, and they told me I had real talent. That little bit of encouragement was all it took!
Are the recipes CALAMITY CAFÉ your own?
Some were passed down through the family. Others were contributed by readers. I think it’s always fun to get readers invested in your stories. The readers whose recipes were accepted were acknowledged with their recipe(s) and received a small honorarium.
A murder trial inspired Lynn Cahoon to write her first book, a thriller. She’d been part of the trial and wanted to fictionalize the story. But that draft got put aside after just four chapters.
She tried a young adult novel, then a cozy, and a romance. Each time, she stopped after four chapters, feeling as though she were writing the wrong story.
“The truth was, I needed to plow through the soggy middle and trust that I would be okay on the other side,” Cahoon says.
Her first published book was a romance in 2012, and her Bull Rider series is still out there, featuring cowboys and the fictional town of Shawnee. But she still wanted to write a cozy mystery.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until she was diagnosed and treated with breast cancer that she had enough time to read—and write. She grabbed books from the library with mystery stickers. Back then, she didn’t realize there were different sub genres of mysteries, but once she found Susan McBride’s Dropout Debutant series, she fell in love with the cozy world.
“After seeing some success with my romance, I picked up the cozy I’d started earlier, finished the book, and started querying,” Cahoon says. “I didn’t get an agent with that book, but I did find a publisher, Kensington. Nine books later in the Tourist Trap series, I am still loving the fact I get to write about South Cove, and Jill and the gang.”
A STORY TO KILL is the first in a new series featuring Cat Latimer.
So, what makes this series different?
“It takes what I love about writing cozies—small town, quirky characters—and sets the story in a new town, new state and amid new problems,” Cahoon says. “The other difference is I’ve been given permisson to make it as sexy or romantic as I’d like. So the book is kind of a mix between a good small town romance and a cozy mystery.”
The Read ’Em and Eat cozy mystery series by Terrie Farley Moran combines two of my favorite things, great food and great books. It’s an iconic cozy series, with a charming setting, lovable eccentric characters who form nearly familial bonds, and a heroine who engages in amateur sleuth-ery for generally selfless reasons.
The third and most recent in the series, READ TO DEATH, centers on best friends Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield, who have relocated from New York to Florida’s Gulf Coast to open a bookstore café. Chef Miguel’s mouthwatering creations provide the proverbial icing on the metaphorical cake. You know a culinary mystery is good when just reading it makes you hungry.
A nationally bestselling author, Moran is the winner of the Agatha Award Best First Novel, and several of her short stories have been short-listed for other major awards. The only thing she likes better than grappling with mysteries, she says, is playing games with, and reading to, her seven grandchildren. Please join me in welcoming her to The Big Thrill.
Congratulations on your new book, Terrie! And thank you for taking the time to talk to us about it. Why don’t we start with a little bit about your writing journey and how you came to be a mystery writer?
All my life I planned that “one day” I would do two things—join a gym and write mysteries. When 9/11 reinforced that the only day that truly belongs to me is today, I was fortunate enough to be able to leave a great career, pick up some odd jobs along the way, and focus on writing mystery short stories and cozy novels.
I know your readers are glad you took that leap. You know, I’ve always thought that one of the most interesting aspects of being a writer is that each book gives you an opportunity to learn something new. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever done when researching a book?
I paddled a kayak on the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers Beach. Sassy and Bridgy go “suspect hunting” in a kayak in the first Read ’Em and Eat book and I wanted to get the feel of it.
Author and clinical psychologist Mary Kennedy says she’s tried without success to psychoanalyze both her husband and their six neurotic cats. With a background like that, it seems fitting that she should write a mystery series in which characters meet to discuss the meanings of their dreams. Of course, I was intrigued by the idea. Who hasn’t listened to a friend describe a dream and felt a fascination at the sudden glimpse into his or her subconscious?
I expected to enjoy A PREMONITION OF MURDER, and I wasn’t disappointed. The characters are charming, and the author’s background in psychology gives her unique insight into her characters and their motivations.
Mary’s life has given her plenty of grist for her writing mill. She started her writing journey as a radio copywriter for a rock radio station in Nashville, which later provided fodder for her Talk Radio series. After a stint as a television news writer, she turned to middle grade fiction and wrote 35 books for Scholastic before moving on to young adult novels and finally to cozies. “Starting out in advertising was an advantage,” she says. “You learn to write quickly and meet deadlines.”
Mary has agreed to talk to The Big Thrill about her latest book, A PREMONITION OF MURDER.
Thanks for joining us today, Mary. Let’s start with a little background. What was the first thriller you ever read, and what about it made it memorable?
I began my love affair with mysteries by reading Nancy Drew and then graduated to Agatha Christie. There’s something captivating about writing (and reading) mysteries. I love the complex plots, the twists and turns, the white knuckle suspense. As my dear friend Carolyn Hart says, “Writing a mystery is like solving a puzzle.” It’s a wonderful field, always intriguing and full of challenges.
A PREMONITION OF MURDER is part of the Dream Club mystery series. What exactly is the Dream Club, and how did you come up with the idea for basing a mystery series on a group of women with a passion for dream interpretation?
I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice and my clients love to talk about their dreams. Freud believed that dreams are the key to the unconscious and that all our hopes and fears, wishes and desires can be found by analyzing dream material. I read a piece on dream clubs and thought it would be fun to write a series about a group of Savannah women who meet once a week to share their dreams and try to interpret them. In Nightmares Can Be Murder, the first book in the series, a dance instructor is murdered right across the street from the candy shop and the club members are horrified. And then slowly, the women begin to have dreams with strange images and symbols that seem to be related to the crime. Is it a coincidence or are they really uncovering clues to the killer? I leave it to the reader to decide.
A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, the sixth title in Christine Goff’s The Birdwatcher’s Mysteries, brings a strong, complex heroine in the person of Angela Dimato. Angela is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent who deals calmly with everything from rattlesnakes to obnoxious people, but who also deals with inner conflicts over lost loves and especially, the murder of a colleague.
In A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, Angela discovers the body of a slain soccer mom amidst the burrows of a prairie dog town. As she investigates the murder, she must also deal with her own grief and crippling flashbacks from the murder of her partner. As we follow Angela’s tense and puzzling journey, we also get a tour of Colorado’s magnificent flora and fauna, courtesy of author Christine Goff and her lifelong love of natural Colorado.
Goff took time out of her schedule this month to answer some questions for TheBigThrill.
The heroine in A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is a strong, independent woman, but she also has an inner sensitivity that struggles with lost friends and broken romances. What are you trying to achieve with Angela Dimato?
Angela is a loner, and similar to a lot of people I know. I tried to depict her just as you see her—strong on the outside, softer on the inside. I want readers to believe she is someone they can trust, someone capable of doing a man’s job and yet possessing the sensibilities of a woman. I think a woman’s insight and compassion can be a strength when solving crimes.
One of the key plot points in A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is an owl species that lives in burrows. How did this idea evolve?
In truth, it was my publisher’s idea. He said I hadn’t done owls. Since that’s what he wanted, I queried my Colorado Birder’s list-serve to see which owl they thought I should use. It was between the spotted owls in southwestern Colorado and the burrowing owls. The burrowing owls were most popular, so I started to think of a location that best fit the plot idea I came up with and settled on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles north of downtown Denver. It’s a great little oasis in the midst of the urban sprawl.
A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is the sixth book in your Birdwatcher Mystery series. What have been the greatest challenges for you in keeping the series fresh and each book original?
I think it’s easy for mystery writers to fall into the “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome,” the woman from Murder She Wrote who has solved more than 200 murders in her small town of Cabot Cove. My method for avoiding that was to use the same milieu of characters, but rotate through protagonists, focusing on whoever is most vested in solving the mystery. The fact that I incorporate large, global environmental themes into the books tends to make all of the books different also. For example, in A Rant of Ravens (Book #1) the story revolves around the illegal trading of peregrine falcons to the Middle East. In Death of a Songbird (Book #2), it’s about the coffee industry and the effects on migratory birds. In A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, it’s about habitat and the litigation (or violation of laws) that impacts protected bird species.
In addition to the Birdwatcher Series, you’ve published a much-acclaimed espionage thriller, Dark Waters. What got you into that genre, and will we see another espionage title any time soon?
When I was first contracted to write the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, I ended up spending two months in Israel with one of my young daughters, who was there for medical care. While we were exploring the country in our free time, I came up with an idea for a thriller. After we came back, I set the idea aside while I wrote the first five books in the Birdwatcher’s series, only picking it up again a few years ago.
Set in Tel Aviv, Dark Waters features a Diplomatic Security Service agent who is at her new post for just two weeks when she is sent to protect a U.S. federal judge and his daughter from an assassin who killed her predecessor. Naturally, she uncovers a sinister plot that leaves millions of lives hanging in the balance. Set amid the Israel-Palestine conflict, this book hopefully keeps the reader frantically turning pages. It got great reviews and I am currently working on the next in the series, Red Sky, scheduled for release in early-2017.
Your passage into the writing profession started with a tough mentor and included a difficult path to publication. Talk about that experience and how it has affected your career as an established novelist.
We all have our stories. Mine started in Summit County, Colorado—in the middle of ski country U.S.—in Frisco, population 2,425. Suffice it to say, there were no published long-fiction writers around, until Maggie Osborne, a New York Times bestselling romance author, moved into Silverthorne. I asked her if she ever taught workshops. She said she would, provided that I could find three other interested people. I did, and we set up a class—five, 3-hour sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of writing (plot, character, dialogue, etc.) Maggie was tough, and after the first session, no one came back except me. I ended up with one-on-one instruction. The book that came out of that workshop was Frozen Assets. It never sold.
In addition to that manuscript, I have an assortment of failed attempts sitting on my bookshelf—a young adult, a horror novel, a stand-alone thriller. With each book I learned a lot about the craft of writing and honed my skills. I think working as hard as I did has made me determined to always grow and stretch as a writer. I put everything I have into every book.
You live in Colorado and write about that state’s natural settings with love and insight. Where does your passion and knowledge come from?
I’m a mountain girl. I was raised in Evergreen, Colorado, which is a small mountain community west of Denver. I spent my youth hiking, skiing, horseback riding, camping and exploring the state. My dad loved the outdoors and he used to take me fishing, sailing and four-wheeling. We had birdfeeders on our front deck, and he introduced me to my first bird—the broad-tailed hummingbird. The outdoors lives in my soul.
Any mystery writer will appreciate that the first 25 pages of the book introduce the heroine, the main conflict, and several secondary conflicts. How has your approach to plot structure evolved over the years?
I learned very early on from my mentor that you should always start a book with action and then fill in the backstory as needed. Pace is difficult. A mystery can progress a little more leisurely than a thriller, but I’ve found my readers like page-turners. In order to keep the middle from bogging down, I work in a four act structure versus the three act structure many writers use. I like to break my book into quarters and make sure that I have a twist or turn or exciting element introduced at strategic points. Of course, often this massaging and restructuring of the book takes place after the first draft. Usually when I start, all I know is where I will begin and end.
The setting and pace of your Birdwatcher Mysteries is reminiscent of the great Tony Hillerman, among others. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
That’s very flattering. I love Tony Hillerman’s books.
Like most writers, I cut my teeth on the classic writers. Currently on my pre-order list are: Lisa Gardner, John Gilstrap and Alex Berenson. I’ve recently bought books by Tami Hoag, Francine Mathews, Gayle Lynds, Jamie Frevetetti and Karna Small Bodman. I think Reed Farrell Coleman just gets better and better. I read a lot, and I read fast. In the past year, I’ve read Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and most of the mysteries that have hit the New York Times list or gotten starred reviews. I’ve also discovered some new mystery writers like Ellen Byron, Leslie Karst, and Mark Stevens, who has a hunting guide series set in Colorado that’s terrific.
You write “cozy mysteries.” How do cozy mysteries differ from other kinds of mysteries?
“Cozy” is a term that gets a bad rap. Basically it’s a traditional mystery that doesn’t have any swearing, graphic sex, or gory violence. I try and abide by those rules in my Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, though I’ll admit I have occasionally slipped in a swear word. Some people would tell you I write an “edgy cozy,” but I prefer to think of my books as traditional mysteries. In some of my books I have amateur sleuth protagonists, in others I use law enforcement-types (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agents or Forest Service employees), which make those more police procedural in nature, but they’re all mysteries with a who dunnit component, clues, and a satisfying ending.
What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you while doing research?
The actual scariest experience might have been in Israel while I was formulating the idea for Dark Waters. My daughter and I boarded a southbound bus in Tel Aviv and missed our stop, ending up in an ultra-orthodox area of the city. Realizing our mistake, we got off the bus intending to turn around and head back for the city. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the bus stop. It was just around sunset and families were coming out to stroll the streets. They were dressed in conservative Jewish attire: men in their long back coats, payots, tophats and wool fringes; women in dresses with conservative necklines that covered their arms and knees, and stockings; the married women in wigs or scarfs that covered their hair. Being American and coming out of a beach day in Tel Aviv (a very cosmopolitan city), I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and my daughter had on a tank top and flip-flops. The men started saying “lech” and spitting at us. I turned to Danielle and asked her “what are they saying?” not expecting an answer. She said, “Go home.” When I asked her how she knew that, she said it’s what our good friend and neighbor in Colorado used to say to his dog Hamoodi when he wanted her to leave.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I would have gladly gone home, but no one would talk to us except to hurl insults and spit. The cab driver wouldn’t let us in his cab because we would taint it, and we couldn’t find the bus stop to catch the northbound bus. Finally a young teenage girl whispered, “Cross the street and take the 92 north.” When I tried to thank her, she shunned me. Later an Israeli friend told us how lucky we were. He said that even a conservative Jew like himself wouldn’t go there, especially at that time of day. He shared stories of women being stoned in that community for not dressing properly. Suffice it to say, Danielle and I made it back safely, but it was unnerving, and we were more careful after that.
Oh, and then there was the rattlesnake in the prairie dog hole….
When aspiring novelists ask you for advice, what’s the most important suggestion you have for them?
Read and write. If you’re not reading in your genre, you’re out of touch. Through reading the masters in your genre you learn about pacing, turn of phrase, narrative, and dialogue. And a writer must write. In this business it’s all about turning out a great book. You only get better as a writer by honing your craft. The best way to do that is by writing.
Christine Goff began her career as a newspaper columnist. Her Birdwatcher’s Mystery series has been nominated for two WILLA Literary Awards, a Colorado Author’s League Award, and have been published in the United Kingdom and Japan.
To learn more about Christine, please visit her website.
Launch Isn’t Just for Rockets!
By Duffy Brown
All my life I thought launch was what those really smart science people do to get something into space. And never in all those years did I expect to be involved. Yet, here I am dong a launch of my own. Not that I’m putting a rocket in space—though right now that seems like a snap—but I’m launching a book.
What do you mean launch? I asked my publisher. As I knew it, the book comes out on a specific day, booksellers put it up for sale, end of story. Done.
Right, as if anything is ever that easy. To launch BRAKING FOR BODIES, the second book in my Cycle Path mystery series, I though it would be fun to do something different. I’ll have a mystery party at my house, I decided! I have the house, I like parties. A match made in heaven. Sixty is a nice number and I can just buy one of those interactive mystery party game things online. Piece of cake.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? Murphy’s Law on steroids.
First off, there are no mystery parties online for sixty people that has everyone involved all the time, and I wanted everyone to have skin in the game. That means I have to write the mystery. And if people are coming to my house, I have to feed them and drink them.
Thirty years ago I decided I wanted kids, and my husband went along with it. That gave me four free waiters and barkeeps for my party. It took me a week to write the party with characters and clues and make it all interactive so that everyone could be the killer or the victim or have something to do with the deadly deed.
A few things I discovered along the way. The most important is the more alcohol, the better the party—and my ability to write the mystery. The second is that your friends are there for fun more than finding out who-done-it. And did I mention the alcohol?
By Karen Harper
While Wendy and I were doing this interview, I found an excellent review of A MUDDIED MURDER in Publishers Weekly, so I was able to send it to Wendy. PW also included a picture of the cover with fresh veggies, which made me wish winter was over so I could get going in the garden. Not only is this an excellent who-done-it but also an intriguing why-done-it. The timing could not be better for this excellent read by a multi-talented author.
What is A MUDDIED MURDER about?
A MUDDIED MURDER features attorney-turned-organic farmer/amateur sleuth Megan Sawyer. When Megan gives up her big-city law career to care for her grandmother and run the family’s organic farm and café, she expects to find peace and tranquility in her scenic hometown of Winsome, Pennsylvania. Instead, her goat goes missing, rain muddies her fields, the town denies her business permits, and her family’s Colonial-era farm sucks up the remains of her savings.
Just when she thinks she’s reached the bottom of the rain barrel, Megan and the town’s hunky veterinarian discover the local zoning commissioner’s battered body in her barn. Megan is thrust into the middle of a murder investigation—and she’s the chief suspect. It’s up to Megan to dig through small-town secrets, local politics, and old grievances in time to find a killer before that killer strikes again.
You stress on your excellent website that you admire and write about strong women in your mysteries. How does your main character in A MUDDIED MURDER, Megan Sawyer, fit that description?
While “strength” can be defined in several ways, when I think of strong women—or people, for that matter—I think of individuals who are able to overcome difficult circumstances. Megan hasn’t had an easy life. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she was brought up by her father and grandmother in the small town of Winsome, PA. After finally getting her life on track, she loses her young husband while he is serving in Afghanistan. Returning to Winsome and starting the farm and café is, for Megan, a show of strength and determination and an act of faith. Not only does she have to overcome the very tangible obstacles presented to her—starting and maintaining the farm, dealing with local politics, managing her limited financial means, finding a killer—but she has to recognize and help to heal her own emotional scars as well.
Connie Archer describes her path to a writing career as “somewhat sideways.” Her first love was acting, and from childhood, when she first heard a soap opera on the radio, she set her sights on screen and stage. Although she pursued a degree in Biology and another in English Literature, she spent most of her adult life as an actress, and never imagined she’d be a published author.
The reality of being an actor, though (especially in television), is that most jobs aren’t that exciting. One day, Archer found herself on set, bored out of her skull. This creative frustration inspired her to try writing. She’d always been a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers, so she gathered her courage and attempted to write one. But books are like potato chips; you can’t write just one. Now unveiling her fifth cozy mystery, A CLUE IN THE STEW, Connie agreed to chat with The Big Thrill about her path to publishing.
What gave you the idea to center the series on a soup shop?
I wish I could say this brilliant idea occurred to me all by myself. I mean what could be more bucolic than Vermont? Or cozier than a soup shop? But it happened this way—I finished my first book and was very lucky and blessed to find a wonderful agent, who shopped it around. I wrote two more books in that series, but a couple of years passed with no takers, and one day my agent called and asked, “How would you feel about work for hire?”
And that was for the Soup Lover’s series from Berkley Prime Crime?
That’s right. I think my agent thought of me because she knew I’d grown up in New England, Boston actually, and I do love to make soup. I hadn’t read a lot of cozy mysteries, so I was nervous about the parameters and what was expected. But I do know New England, and thought the series would be great fun to write.
By Wendy Tyson
THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS is New York City author Catherine Lowell’s debut novel. The mystery follows Samantha Whipple, the Brontës’ sole living descendant, as she searches for the family’s long-rumored secret estate. The only tools at her disposal? Clues her eccentric father left behind and the Brontës’ own novels.
THE BIG THRILL recently had a chance to catch up with Catherine.
Congratulations on the publication of THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS. What can you tell us about the book that’s not on the back cover?
It’s easy to think that a book on the Brontës would involve characters who love books and idolize the Brontës. But The Madwoman Upstairs is about an English major who dislikes most literature—a descendant of the Brontës who doesn’t like the Brontës. How does a reluctant relative go about decoding an old family legacy? Samantha’s journey in the novel is a quest not only to understand her family’s misunderstood past, but to understand literature itself—how to evaluate it, why it matters, and what secrets might be lurking in its pages.
Can you tell us a little more about Samantha Whipple, the main character in THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS? What are some of the elements of Samantha’s past that have made her the woman she is today? How is Samantha like you? Not like you?
What I love about Samantha is that she’s not afraid to speak her mind, even to her superiors, and even when she has the most at stake. (I wish I could do that more often!) She is both confident and strangely vulnerable, owing to a particularly tragic incident in her past. At the center of her life is her relationship with her late father—a person whose respect she was desperate to gain but whose opinions she recognizes were unorthodox and potentially wrong.
A DISGUISE TO DIE FOR, out this month from Berkley Prime Crime, is the first cozy mystery in the new Costume Shop mystery series. Margo Tamblyn, a 32 year old working as a magician’s assistant in Las Vegas, comes back to Proper City to temporarily run the family costume shop, Disguise DeLimit, when her father is hospitalized after a heart attack. Soon she is involved in hunting down clues to clear the family friend who helped raise her, Ebony Welles, of suspicion in the murder of a local rich trust fund baby, Blitz Manners.
Please tell us something about yourself. For one, you worked in fashion for 20 years before starting to write.
I’ve liked clothes since as long as I can remember—back to first grade. At one point I wanted to be a designer. After graduating from college with a fine arts degree, I did the logical thing: I went to the mall for a job. Decades (and a few promotions) later, I started to write. My first series character is a former fashion buyer turned amateur sleuth. A perfect example of what you know, right?
Please tell us about your new mystery, A DISGUISE TO DIE FOR. It’s your fourth cozy mystery series?
I wasn’t actively looking for a fourth series. True story: I was in New York and set up a face-to-face meeting with my agent and editor. It was September, and we got to talking about Halloween costumes. I told them that I was making a tiny yeti costume for my teddy bear and described how funny it was to put him into this little suit of white fur that had vampire teeth attached. My agent interrupted the conversation and said, “You should write a costume shop series.” I was ready to leave the table and start writing sample chapters right then and there, but she asked me to hold off until we found out if the publisher was interested. After seeing a proposal and sample chapters, they bought three books.
Why did you start a fourth series? Why a costume shop and an unusual town near Las Vegas?
My first three series all connect to someplace where I’ve lived (Style & Error in Pennsylvania, Madison Night in Texas, and Material Witness in California). I wanted a different setting, and I wanted it to be within driving distance from where I lived so I could absorb the feel of the place without needing to fly. The part of Nevada where I set the costume shop series is right past the California border, which I found interesting because it attracts scofflaws from California and is basically desert, a drive-through toward Las Vegas.
My town is quirky: people like to throw costume parties for any occasion. They’re a community of people who are okay being a small town, though there is the constant threat of incorporation and of local government trying to leverage their location for national attention.
It started innocently—at Bloody Words, Canada’s former national mystery conference, Toronto, 2006.
I had just come out of a 15-minute interview with an agent and was feeling a little shaky from the adrenalin. The lobby of the conference floor of the Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre Hotel was practically empty. Most attendees, fondly dubbed The Usual Suspects, were behind the closed doors of the various conference rooms learning about predators and violent crime from a forensic psychiatrist, or attending other themes sessions.
But in the shadows of an escalator stood one woman. She looked just about as antsy as me, so I walked over and introduced myself.
Melodie had an agent appointment in about ten minutes. Agents aren’t scary. Really.
I wished her friend good luck. We chatted a little more—all about calming our nerves (Agents aren’t scary. Really.)—then arranged to meet at the evening banquet.
As it turns out, after dessert was served that night, Melodie was awarded third prize in the Bony Pete Short Story Contest for “School for Burglars,” a feat which required not luck, but skill. Everyone at the table, including me, was thrilled for her. We eagerly exchanged e-mails. We had to read that winning story!
“School for Burglars” is a fabulous tale, of course. And over the years, Melodie and I exchanged more stories. We offered each other writer support and input. Then we met again at Bloody Words 2008, the year my story “A Terror in Judgement” won second prize. Melodie was sweet when I cried.
Melodie and I were on to something: Not only did we enjoy each other’s company and each other’s writing, we had similar styles. Why not write a mystery novel together?
By Kay Kendall
The Winemaker Detective series has a huge following in its native France. To date there are twenty-three mysteries in the series, and a New York-based publishing house, Le French Book, is now translating all of the titles into English. Its founder, translator Anne Trager, has a passion for crime fiction equal to her love for France.
BACKSTABBING IN BEAUJOLAIS, published in English on November 19, is ninth in the series by French authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. The tenth mystery—Late Harvest Havoc—comes out in December, together with a collection of the first three mysteries, The Winemaker Detective: An Omnibus.
Here, translator Anne Trager talks with The Big Thrill about bringing this beloved French series to an English-speaking audience.
Each book in the Winemaker Detective series is not only a mystery but an homage to wine and the art of making it. Has the series’ growing number of international readers begun to influence the mysteries’ plots?
For both authors, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, the main character has always had an international vocation. Benjamin Cooker is an expert winemaker whose father was British and mother French. He and his young assistant solve mysteries in wine country. The initial mysteries translated so far all take place in France, but next year, one will take place in Hungary. The authors confirm that their intention has always been to have the protagonist travel to wine countries around the world, and the growing international audience makes that choice more and more pertinent. The mysteries have been adapted to television, attracting an audience of over 4 million in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The authors write two books a year and just told me they will be picking up the pace because of the French television series. We too are picking up the translation pace.
Leslie Budewitz is a woman of many passions. After thirty years as an attorney, she wrote a guide for writers about criminal law and courtroom procedure, which won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Then she decided to combine two of her passions, food and great mysteries, by writing a series of cozy “foodie” mysteries. In 2013, Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village Mystery, won an Agatha for Best First Novel, making Budewitz the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction.
Her latest novel, GUILTY AS CINNAMON, has all the elements of a great cozy mystery—quirky characters, a unique, well-realized setting, and plenty of conflict. And did I mention the food? In this second Spice Shop Mystery, Budewitz’s knowledge of and love for cooking shine through. Five pages in, spice shop owner Pepper Reece describes a process for making a “gorgeous, fiery, red-orange oil” by heating ground dried peppers in oil and straining the oil off. Despite my lack of the domestic gene, I could hardly wait to try it myself.
The Montana native has a heart for service. She serves as president of Sisters in Crime and is a founding member of the Guppies, the SinC chapter for new and unpublished writers. She generously agreed to answer a few questions for us about her work.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey?
I started writing at 4, on my father’s desk. Literally—I did not yet understand the concept of paper. But while l always wanted to be a writer, I didn’t actually think it was something you could do—so I became a lawyer instead. In my late thirties, I decided I really did want to write seriously, though it took more than fifteen years before I held my first book in my hands. In the interim, I wrote several unpublished manuscripts, although a few were agented and came close, and published half a dozen short stories. After Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, 2011) was published, I decided that as much as I love helping other writers get the facts about the law write—er, right—I wasn’t through telling my own stories. I love the light-hearted subset of traditional mystery sometimes called the cozy, and decided to try that genre.
TO BREW OR NOT TO BREW, the debut cozy mystery by Joyce Tremel out on December 1, features Max (Maxine) O’Hara, a certified brewmaster who is opening a brewpub in Pittsburgh. Although there have been minor problems, she rejects the possibility of sabotage until her assistant Kurt is found dead. She sets out to investigate with the help of other small business owners in the neighborhood and her new chef Jake, but then there is another death….
Tell us about your book, TO BREW OR NOT TO BREW.
It’s the first in the Brewing Trouble cozy mystery series being published by Berkley Prime Crime. My protagonist, Max O’Hara, is in the process of opening a brewpub in a Pittsburgh neighborhood and finds herself involved in solving the murder of her assistant. Along the way she gets help from a bakery owner who’s a rabid Steeler fan, a cranky World War II vet, and of course, her new chef, Jake, who was her high school crush.
Details of Pittsburgh life add a nice touch to your mystery. Have you always lived in Pittsburgh?
Yes. I know Pittsburghese and I’m not afraid to use it! The city has gone through a lot of change over the years and it seemed like the perfect place—to me, anyway—to set a light mystery. Pittsburgh is really a small town disguised as a big city and I think it makes a great setting.
I’m not sure what to say about myself. That’s always a hard question to answer! I’ve been married to the love of my life for thirty-five years and we have two grown sons. And a cat.
By Karen Harper
I think all writers are interesting in different ways, but Larissa Reinhart amazes me. She may be a southern Georgia girl but she lives in and loves Japan. Go figure—and go figure on getting her next book if you want sassy characters and humor. I was glad to e-meet her.
What is THE BODY IN THE LANDSCAPE about?
The novel is the fifth Cherry Tucker mystery. Cherry’s a struggling portrait painter from small town Halo, Georgia. Her sassy spitfire reputation has her in trouble back home, so when invited to paint the winning portrait for Big Rack Lodge’s Hogzilla hunt contest, it seems like a paid vacation. While landscape painting she discovers the body of local ne’er-do-well and, of course, embroils herself in hunting for the killer. Which is not the brightest of ideas when surrounded by hunters. Just sayin’.
Where does your Cherry Tucker series, of which this is a part, fit in the category of “cozy mysteries”? Is there a range of cozies or sub-genres within?
I think it depends on where you’re looking. For example on the big sites—like Amazon—the Cherry Tucker Mysteries are listed under Amateur Sleuth, Humor, and Cozies, with a subgenera of Crafts and Hobbies (as opposed to Culinary or Animals).
In some conferences I’ve attended, we’ve discussed a new genre for cozies, the “modern cozy” which calls for more action, stronger language, and more sexual situations than traditional cozies. The Cherry Tuckers definitely have a strong romantic component, but I’m aware of my audience in terms of language and sex (I always say the books get a PG-13 rating). However, I try to drive scenes with action and dialogue rather than the slower pacing of traditional cozies.
By Ovidia Yu
THE SKELETON HAUNTS A HOUSE is the third in the delightfully quirky Family Skeleton series featuring English professor Georgia Thackery who is a single mom with—literally—a skeleton in her family closet.
Leigh Perry (who also writes as Toni L.P. Kelner) answers some questions about her wisecracking living skeleton, Sid, and her new book.
How would you describe Sid to someone who loves your books but is afraid of skeletons?
Why would anybody be afraid of a skeleton? After all, we’re all skeletons under the skin.
Huh. I just Googled it and found yes, there are people who are afraid of skeletons. Some are actually afraid of their own skeletons. To those people I can say only that they should read another book. Sid is not a metaphor—he’s an actual human skeleton. If it helps, he is a clean skeleton—I’m not fond of nasty ones with bits and pieces still attached. But still, if you don’t like skeletons, this is just not the book for you.
Can you tell us something about THE SKELETON HAUNTS A HOUSE without giving too much away?
It’s Halloween in Pennycross, and Sid can’t wait to go into the town’s haunted house attraction. Then a dead body is found in the haunt—the real kind of dead, not the faux kind—and Sid and his BFF Georgia step in to catch a killer. Along the way, there are family complications, academic anxiety, carnival rides, and romance. (Not for Sid and Georgia. That would be icky.)
Sid dresses in costume again, but I don’t want to give away what he’s wearing.
After Savannah’s father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, she drops everything to return home to St. Petersburg, Florida, to settle his affairs–including the fate of the beloved, family-owned glass shop. Savannah intends to hand over ownership to her father’s trusted assistant and fellow glass expert, Hugh Trevor, but soon discovers the master craftsman also dead of an apparent heart attack.
As if the coincidence of the two deaths wasn’t suspicious enough, Savannah discovers a note her father left for her in his shop, warning her that she is in danger. With the local police unconvinced, it’s up to Savannah to piece together the encoded clues left behind by her father. And when her father’s apprentice is accused of the murders, Savannah is more desperate than ever to crack the case before the killer seizes a window of opportunity to cut her out of the picture. . .
Jill Gardner—owner of Coffee, Books, and More—has somehow been talked into sponsoring a 5k race along the beautiful California coast. The race is a fundraiser for the local preservation society—but not everyone is feeling so charitable…
The day of the race, everyone hits the ground running…until a local business owner stumbles over a very stationary body. The deceased is the vicious wife of the husband-and-wife team hired to promote the event—and the husband turns to Jill for help in clearing his name. But did he do it? Jill will have to be very careful, because this killer is ready to put her out of the running…forever!
“Murder, dirty politics, pirate lore, and a hot police detective: Guidebook to Murder has it all! A cozy lover’s dream come true.”
—Susan McBride, author of The Debutante Dropout Mysteries
Marla Vail is a hairdresser living in South Florida who gets involved in sleuthing and finding murderers. In PERIL BY PONYTAIL, the twelfth in the Bad Hair Day series of cozy mysteries by Nancy J. Cohen, Marla is on a belated honeymoon with her homicide detective husband Dalton to a large dude ranch in Arizona run by his cousins to help find who is causing malicious mischief there. And then the murders start….
Tell us about the Bad Hair Day series and PERIL BY PONYTAIL, out this month.
The mysteries feature hairstylist Marla Vail née Shore, who first meets Detective Dalton Vail in Permed to Death. Ten books later, they get married in Shear Murder. But there’s no rest for our sleuths. They move into a new home in Hanging by a Hair, where they discover a dead body next door. Finally, Marla and Dalton go on a honeymoon in PERIL BY PONYTAIL
Marla isn’t thrilled about a honeymoon in the desert. She’s dreamed about lying on a lounge chair at a tropical beach with palm fronds swaying overhead. But Dalton has accepted an invitation to stay at his cousin’s ranch where trouble is brewing. The cousin hopes that Dalton, a homicide detective, can help determine the source of sabotage at the dude ranch and at a ghost town Dalton’s uncle is renovating. Things go downhill fast from the moment the newlyweds arrive when a local forest ranger is found dead.
Why did you choose South Florida as your setting? Why Arizona?
I live in South Florida, so it’s easy to do research in my own backyard. Plus Florida has so much diversity in terms of ecology, demographics, history, quaint towns, and more that a wealth of material exists for a mystery series. All I need to do is read the newspaper for ideas.
When Carol Childs is called to the scene of a body dump she has no idea she’s about to uncover a connection to a string of missing girls. Young, attractive women, drawn to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood via an internet promise of stardom and romance, have been disappearing. A judge’s daughter leaves behind a clue and a trip down Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame reveals a connection to a high powered real estate mogul and to a cartel targeting girls for human trafficking.
Old Hollywood has its secrets, its impersonators and backdoor entrances to old speakeasies and clubs where only those with the proper credentials can go. And when Carol Childs gets too close, she finds herself politically at odds with powers that threaten to undue her career and like the very girls she’s seeking, disappear.
“A high-speed chase of a mystery, filled with very likable characters, a timely plot, and writing so compelling that readers will be unable to turn away from the page.” ~Kings River Life Magazine
“This book was a real nail-biter! It kept my attention the entire time. A definite must read. ~Goodreads Review
Susan E. Sagarra’s debut mystery novel, CRACKS IN THE COBBLESTONE, is the story of two vastly different women who have a mutual obsession with the Titanic tragedy. That calamity presents itself to each woman in different ways to help solve a long-forgotten mystery in the quirky river town of Tirtmansic.
Sagarra has always been intrigued with the historic catastrophe. “I have an unexplained fascination with, or connection to, the Titanic disaster, and my lucky number is 12,” she said. “When I set out to write my book, I looked at the calendar the day I started writing and it was April 12, 2010. So I decided to start part of the novel on April 12 . . . of 1912. I did not even think about the year’s significance until I researched important events and realized the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, three days after I had determined my written journey would begin.”
But this was only one of several coincidences along the way. Several years earlier, when Sagarra was the managing editor of a St. Louis, Missouri-based newspaper, she had been invited to see the Titanic exhibit at the Saint Louis Science Center. “At the beginning of the exhibit, they give you a ‘boarding pass’ that depicts a real passenger who was on the ship and you have the opportunity to experience the event as that person,” Sagarra said. “The pass gives details about the person and my passenger, a woman named Mrs. Edward Beane (Ethel Clark), was one of just twelve newlywed brides on the ship. At the end of the exhibit, you find out if ‘you’ survived. She did.”
Sagarra dug out the boarding pass from her trunk of memorabilia and researched Ethel Beane. She ended up paying homage to Mrs. Beane in the book.
The next serendipitous event occurred when she received a gift from her brother. “He gave me a book called I Survived the Titanic, by Lawrence Beesley. Mr. Beesley described how he had survived in lifeboat No. 13, which spooked me. He was in the same boat as Ethel Beane. My brother did not know I describe this woman in my novel when he gave me the present.”
Last September, news of a drug laundering operation in the Los Angeles fashion and textile district hit the airwaves. Officially called Operation Fashion Police by the FBI, the raid resulted in a haul of multi-millions of dollars cash, all in hundred dollar bills. The money was profit from the narcotics trade, most of it discovered in duffle bags and cardboard boxes. Several of the boxes were even conveniently marked “1 million.”
Now that was nice, don’t you think? Criminals labeling their own evidence.
The raid was considered to be the largest in history. Current reports state the combined value of cash and property seized at $140 million. Nine arrests were made. All pled not guilty.
The gist of the laundering operation was this: Mexican drug cartels in the United States gave bags of cash to businesses in the Los Angeles fashion district, who used the money to make or import products that would then be sold to Mexican distributors for pesos. The pesos were returned to the Mexican drug cartel.
Simplified, it would be like me selling drugs and then giving you the money I made to buy widgets. You then sold the widgets to a third party and gave me the money you made. I put the clean—laundered—money in the bank and no one would be the wiser. Seems simple, right?
By Diane Kelly
Readers often want to know where writers find their inspiration. Some writers find inspiration in the headlines. Others find it in the people around them or in experiences they’ve had. In the case of my Paw Enforcement K-9 cop series, inspiration simply licked my ankle. One look down at my black and tan Shepherd mix and I realized a dog like him would make a great character for a mystery series.
Yep, I’m a big animal lover. My husband and I share our home with three dogs and six cats. Being outnumbered more than four-to-one by furry, four-footed creatures qualifies me as a “crazy cat lady” and violates a number of city ordinances. Still, even though I can’t get out of my house without fur on my clothes, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Along with the plastic poop bags and hacked-up hairballs, my dogs and cats bring love and laughter to our lives.
One of the wonderful things about dogs is their emotional honesty. Dogs don’t hide their feelings. If they’re happy, their wagging tail lets you know it. If they’re feeling threatened, the ears go back and the teeth come out. If they don’t want to move from their favorite spot on the couch, they give you a look of unmistakable disdain that says, “I was here first. Buzz off, mere human.”
By Mary Kennedy
Seven Things You Really Want To Know About Dreams
As a practicing psychologist, I find that my clients are fascinated by dreams. Most of them have read a little Freud, who called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” Freud believed dreams can help us access our innermost thoughts; our fears, wishes, and desires. Think of dreams as a window into our unconscious life. They can be humorous, erotic, tantalizing or terrifying.
When I came up with the premise of the Dream Club Mysteries, I envisioned a group of Savannah women who would meet once a week to eat some fabulous Southern desserts and talk about their dreams. And of course, they would solve a murder or two in every book. I thought this might be an intriguing plot device and could pave the way for some interesting characterization.
As the women reveal their dreams, they realize that they held hidden clues to the crime scene, usually in symbolic form. Sometimes they even uncover the identity of the murderer. But were these clues really “revelations” from the subconscious or merely coincidences? I remembered Freud’s claim, “There are no coincidence.” I chose to sidestep the question and leave it up to the reader to decide.
When I’m asked to speak on dreams, I find that people have strong beliefs—and sometimes misconceptions—about dreams. Here are a few questions I’ve come across.
You can only dream about things you’ve experienced in real life. Is this true?
No, of course not. Anything can happen in a dream. You can take on a new persona, explore lands both real and imaginary, and have adventures worthy of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Since dreams are not subject to time and space constraints, you can share a plate of marrons with Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake!”) one night and be part of the first space mission (“Houston, we have a problem”) the following evening.
Imagine yourself in a corner of France, with its customs and history, its Armagnac and duck confit. Then add some mystery. That was my world as I translated FLAMBE IN ARMAGNAC, the French title of this latest installment in the Winemaker Detective series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen.
In the heart of Gascony, a fire ravages the warehouse of one of Armagnac’s top estates, killing the master distiller. Wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to estimate the value of the losses. But Cooker and his assistant Virgile want to know more. How did the old alembic explode? Was it really an accident? Why is the estate owner Baron de Castayrac penniless? How legal are his dealings?
The deeper the winemaking detective digs, the more suspicious he becomes. There is more than one disgruntled inhabitant in this small town. As readers are witness to the time-honored process of Armagnac distillation, the day-to-day activities of the hunt, the marketplace, and the struggles for power within the community, they get a glimpse of the traditions of southwestern France. Similarly, they are introduced to characters from all walks of life—landed gentry with noble titles, former aristocrats contriving to hold on to their status, and the working-class salt of the earth. Each has a story to tell, and Cooker has to listen carefully in order to piece together the mystery of the Chateau Blanzac inferno.
One of the colorful characters in the story is the “roving distiller,” a man who inherited the craft of turning wine into Armagnac by way of an intricate yet medieval-looking machine called an alembic that he hauls from estate to estate with his tractor. The transformation of simple alcohol into the highly prized eau-de-vie seems symbolic of complex human relationships the reader encounters in the village.