Award-winning author Maria de Rico gravitated from writing sitcoms to writing cozy mysteries. Both genres are populated with vivid characters—so that was the obvious place to start discussing DiRico’s latest page-turning thriller, HERE COMES THE BODY.
If you had to rely on one character from your books to save your life, who would that be?
Oh, for sure it would be Mia Carina, the protagonist of HERE COMES THE BODY. She’s tough, ballsy, and fearless. On top of that, as the daughter of a mobster, she was raised to have eyes in the back of her head, so she’s also street-smart and resourceful. She’s had to find some creative ways to save her own butt, so I know I can count on her to come up with a way to save mine, should the need arise.
Are there any of your characters you wouldn’t even trust with a balloon on a stick?
That would probably be her brother, Positano, aka Posi. He’s currently finishing a sentence for car theft at a minimum-security prison facility, so for one thing, he’s not actually available. On a personal level, Posi is affable, handsome, and charming, but quite self-involved. I’d have trouble trusting him because I know he’d be distracted the minute he caught a glance of his own reflection in a mirror or window.
I have a great affection for these types of larger than life characters in books, so I loved Guadalupe Cruz from the moment she stormed into the action. Which of the characters in HERE COMES THE BODY is your favorite?
I love that you loved Guadalupe! I used her sparingly, so I really wanted to make sure she made an impression when she did appear in the book. Honestly, I really love all my characters. In terms of supporting characters, I do have a special fondness for Cammie, Mia’s co-worker, who’s determined to do little, if any, work, and completely committed to the fashion and beauty look she adopted in the 1980s.
Cozy mysteries and food (especially cakes) go hand in glove. Why do you think the mix of murder and eating work so well?
What a great question! I know for myself that when I was writing Plantation Shudders, the first book in my Cajun Country Mystery series (as Ellen Byron), I found I kept getting hungry as I described all the delicious Cajun food my characters were eating. I figured if that was happening to me, it might happen with my readers, so I decided to include recipes. With my new Catering Hall Mysteries, the recipes were a logical fit. To be honest, I’m not really a cook, so sometimes coming up with these working recipes is the hardest part of the book. On a more general level, perhaps the marriage of murder and eating in cozies is a result of amateur sleuths pursuing other occupations, some of which are culinary in nature.
You worked for Martha Stewart: have you got a story or two to share from then? We promise not to snitch.
Ha! I absolutely love and admire Martha. I was a cater-waiter in Martha’s early days. If you have an early edition of her first book, Entertaining, you’ll find me standing next to her on page 29. People should know that, with her, what they see is exactly what she is. I’ll never forget the first time I showed up at her amazing, historic home in Westport. I walked in, looked into the front parlor—which was flawlessly decorated with Colonial American antiques—and there was Martha, using a crème brulee torch to assemble a three-story gingerbread townhouse. In the early ’90s, when I was an established freelance magazine writer, I interviewed Martha after she’d become a huge success. I hadn’t spoken to her in a while and it was so nice to catch up. We’d worked together in the 1980s, when AIDS in New York was devastating the gay population. Many of the guys I waited with were gay and Martha knew what had happened to each and every one of them.
Reading the book, there’s a real sense of “place defining a person”— ie: where they come from and where they live being a part of them. Is that just the effect of the sheer exoticism of location for this Brit or is it something you deliberately use as an author?
Oh, I am all about setting. Look at the titles of my series: the Cajun Country Mysteries. The Catering Hall Mysteries. I absolutely believe place is one of the critical nature versus nurture markers that define a person. I went to school in New Orleans and fell in love with Cajun country and culture. Everything in that series is a fictionalized version of places that inspired me. The Catering Hall Mysteries are even more close to home. Mia lives in the two-family home where my nonna and uncle’s family lived. She works at the banquet hall that a cousin by marriage ran, and where my husband and I had our New York reception. As I write each book in the series, I travel in my mind to the places in my past that have come to define my present work. Ooh—good theme for a blog post!
Anyone looking at your website will be immediately struck by the slideshow of book covers with the basset hound.
That’s Gopher, who was inspired by Lucy, our late, lamented basset rescue. Maggie, the protagonist in my Cajun Country Mystery series, will occasionally run a thought by Gopher, if no one else is around. In A Cajun Christmas Killing, he uses his hound senses to help rescue a kidnapped dog. But Gopher mostly good-naturedly galumphs around trolling for food. I’m a dog nut, and I’ve written all three of our rescues into my books. Even the grandmother’s pet pooch in HERE COMES THE BODY was inspired by a real dog. My uncle, who lived upstairs with his wife and kids in their Astoria two-family home, was a sanitation man, and the family dogs were usually strays he picked up on his route. My nonna lived downstairs, and she wasn’t a fan of the dogs until one scrappy little guy chased a burglar out of her home. She loved that dog so much after that.
You’ve moved from Gopher the dog sidekick to Doorstop the cat in HERE COMES THE BODY. Are there risks to having an animal on page? What do they bring to a book that humans don’t?
Doorstop was inspired by a beautiful Abyssinian cat a friend had who recently passed away owned. I have a bird and a dog in the book, too! Mia’s grandmother has a mutt named Mia and Mia has a bird who got separated from her in Florida and she’s trying to locate. The only risk to having an animal in a book is letting them take over the plot. For me, the opposite has been true. People have asked to see more of Gopher in my Cajun Country Mystery series! I always have to do a pass to make sure he’s not just wandering around trolling for dropped food scraps.
Maria DiRico (the pen name of award-winning author Ellen Byron) was born in Queens, New York, and raised in Queens and Westchester County. She is first-generation Italian American on her mother’s side. On her father’s side, her grandfather was a low-level Jewish mobster who disappeared in 1933 under mysterious circumstances. While growing up in Queens, Maria/Ellen’s cousins ran the Astoria Manor and Grand Bay Marina catering halls.
Mardi Gras Murder, the fourth book in Ellen Byron’s bestselling Cajun Country Mystery series, won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel. The series has also won multiple Best Humorous Mystery Lefty awards from Left Coast Crime. Fun fact: she worked as cater-waiter for Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing. Maria/Ellen loves to translate what she learned from Martha into recipes for her books.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.