Tag Archive: Mysteries

Six “Cozies”

There’s a whole genre of “literature” that is referred to as “cozies”. Wikipedia defines it as: “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Most “gourmet” or “chef” mysteries fall into the category.

I enjoy them in general; they’re light, easy reading, perfect for, say, a vacation. I’d say they usually fall into one of two styles – either where the detective him or herself (almost always him, but that may just be reflective of the odds in the profession) is the gourmet, and food is an integral part of their existence – oft-times it plays into the solving of whatever mystery (almost always a murder) is at hand. The other style is chef oriented, and usually involves a chef in a small cafe of some sort, a caterer, or a food writer, who steps outside their daily tasks and gets heavily involved in the solving the crime (again, almost always a murder) – it’s a bet that at some point a) they (almost always a woman) will be regarded as a suspect by the big, bad detective (still almost always a him), usually because they either discover the body or were the last person to see the victim alive (think Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?); b) will get themselves into deep trouble and have to be rescued by same detective; and c) will end up in some sort of personal relationship with same detective.

Pure serendipity, I ran across a sextet (with a seventh on the way) of these that have made for good vacation reading fare. By Lucy Burdette, they’re set in Key West, and the protagonist is a budding restaurant critic.

appetite for murderFun, enjoyable, swift paced read. Pretty much follows my outline above to a “T”. Wannabe restaurant critic becomes the suspect in the poisoning murder of the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Much brouhaha and back and forth. Supportive friends who bizarrely encourage her to investigate the murder on her own because… mean detective. Someone tries to kill her. No one seems to really believe her, including her friends who now aren’t so sure that she isn’t making it all up and maybe she shouldn’t be investigating on her own (you guys talked her into it!). Lots of food descriptions, even some recipes. Gets herself into hot water with the actual murderer as she closes in on the solution. All the pieces fall into place. Resolution. Happy, happy. I know I’m making it sound trite, and on some level it is, but it’s not supposed to be anything more than a fun, easy read, and it fulfills on that.

I’m not going to review each individual book in the series, although the details change, there’s a certain sameness to each one. I’d like to say that over the course of the six books (seventh being released soon), our protagonist developed from an intrepid to an experienced food critic, and while lip-service is paid to that idea, if you pay attention, there’s really no evolution of her abilities, food knowledge, or much of anything. She repeats the same mistakes, over and over – on a personal level, constantly going for supporting the suspect (who, of course, in the end, turns out not to be the murderer, vindicating her gut feelings), over the counsel of family, friends, and most importantly, whichever gentleman is her current love interest – leading to romantic dissolution, repeatedly.

It’s in the food area that things fall most short – she’s got a palate that’s straight out of Lady’s Home Journal cerca 1968, and presents recipes that likely found their way into the typical church social group annual recipe books of the same era (pimiento cheese dip is apparently the pinnacle of sophistication). She rolls her eyes and makes snide remarks about “those wine people”, apparently not familiar with the term sommelier, or the possibility that knowing something about wine might be part of her job as a restaurant critic. She sneers, well, the word choice is “snickers” (more times than I care to count, really, this woman just walks around snickering all the time) at the use of any unusual ingredient or technique (apparently no one but a few pretentious chefs has any interest whatsoever in the world of modernist cooking, no diner would actually eat that food), opining that no normal person would be interested in eating, tasting, or knowing about anything other than the safe choices of everyday fare.

I’d say that this comes down to one of two situations – either the author wants her principal character to come across as a rube – unthinking and uninterested in learning – basically presenting her as a brand new, wet behind the ears, budding food critic who has absolutely zero interest in becoming better at her job, expanding her knowledge base, or, really, anything but dispensing opinions on topics which she a) freely admits she knows nothing about and b) is completely confident that despite her lack of so much as a shred of expertise, is right about; or, and more likely, it’s a reflection of the attitudes and grasp of the author.

Does that make them less fun to read? No. Though for someone who is intimately involved in the food and beverage world, it’s moderately annoying at various moments.


Friendly Books

A little interlude in the stream of vacation consciousness. I’m sitting here on the 16th floor of a high-rise in Medellin, Colombia, looking out over the El Poblado neighborhood. It’s early, really early, and I thought it’s about time I finish this post which I’ve been poking away at on and off for a bit. I have friends who like to write. There, I said it. And some of them have actually published books. Usually, not always, I end up getting a copy, though I tend not to review them, because, is it really fair to review the book of a friend? I can’t be 100% objective. But hey, they tell people good things about Casa SaltShaker and recommend they eat here, right? (You guys do, right?)

So, here, a little shilling for a trio of books by folk I know and like.

First up, two books by FJ Rocca, whom you’ve met on these “pages” as Frank, in the guise of posts about some of the dinners I used to do in New York, visiting when I’m back in the States – earlier on in NYC and more recently in Baltimore, and, he’s the talented cartoonist who drew the covers for both editions of my dictionary. Over the last two years he’s published two novels that he’s been working on for some time – one of them I actually read an early draft of years ago, so it was nice to see how it shaped up in final form.

masterwednesdayNot the sort of book I’d typically pick up to read, my tastes, without an outside reason to select a book, tend towards food related, obviously, though in the world of literature I tend towards occasionally getting around to a classic that for some reason I’d never read (you know, those lists of “the 100 books that such and such authority says you should read before you die”), science fiction, historical fiction, and humorous sorts of things. Master of Wednesday Night is none of those things – it’s an intricate psychological drama that focuses on the rivalry between a young, up and coming, ambitious (both positively and negatively) symphony conductor, and the older, nearing retirement conductor who’s hovering somewhere between “still got it” and irrelevant. The characters are well drawn, the plot moves along at a good clip, and one of the things I like about it the most is that Frank (see, I’m going to use first names, rather than last names as is typical in a review) doesn’t dumb down his prose. Some folk may need to resort to a dictionary now and again, which admittedly may interrupt the flow, but hey, it’ll be worth it. I found the book engaging enough that I read through the nearly 500 pages in two sittings.

becarefulkillHaving worked with Frank for a short while when I was doing night-time word processing at a law firm while attending cooking school during the day (I’m trying to remember when it was that I actually slept), the setting and characters of Be Careful Who Kills You! ring familiar. We knew people like the four folk who dominate the story. What I particularly enjoyed in this little thriller is that none of the characters is purely antagonist or protagonist, they’re all well rounded and have elements of both. By turn, each was someone to admire or despise, to root for or against. There are moments in the plot line where the story edges into being momentarily preachy about right and wrong, good and evil, and I can hear Frank admonishing one or another of his daughters in the ways of the world, but he pulls back from the brink and continues apace. The story definitely doesn’t end up anywhere predictable, and what more can you ask for from a combination romance and thriller?

drivinghungryNow, Layne Mosler is not someone I know nearly as well as Frank. We were more social acquaintances during the time she lived in Buenos Aires, met up once in New York (hey Layne, I notice I didn’t get an acknowledgement for my “ride along” in the book credits – just sayin’), and have kept in reasonably regular touch over the years since she left. She was one of the early English language food bloggers in BA, starting up not long after I did, and her reviews often sent me off to check out one place or another. But, despite the ostensible food focus of Driving Hungry, a memoir that at first blush seems to follow her blog Taxi Gourmet as she heads off to eat wherever the whims of cabbies take her, this isn’t a book about food. It’s a book of self-discovery, mostly as Layne moves from her 20s into her 30s, about life, love, and relationships. Food, and tango, form the backdrop against which her story develops. Now, I have to admit, I approached the book with a certain amount of trepidation – after all, does someone in their 30s really have enough life experience to be writing her “memoirs”? I think of memoirs as something someone writes as they head into their “golden years”. But setting aside that moniker, the book is an engaging tale that traces her story from Buenos Aires to New York to Berlin. One of the more interesting things about the structure, and I don’t know if it was intentional, or based on the timing of when the three sections were written, or simply based on her feelings about those three periods in her life, but each is written in a disparate tone of voice. You could almost come away with thinking that the events, as they unfold, were narrated by different people, viewing Layne’s life from a different perspective. Regardless of intention, I found that that added to my enjoyment of the book, as it felt like Layne, the author, was developing alongside Layne, the character.


Where Everything is Just Write

Fatally FlakyI was mucking about in one of our local English language bookstores, just looking for something casual to read (why, I don’t know – I have more books piled up and also loaded on my e-reader than I’ll likely ever get to) when I stumbled across a few books from Diane Mott Davidson. She has written what turned out to be a fifteen volume series (with more on the way I gather) of cozy mysteries – you might remember… no, you won’t… that a little over five years ago I reviewed a trio of such fare… if you’re interested, here, here and here – each of them progressively better than the previous one, thankfully. The genre is one of light reading fare, generally, as best I can tell, with a protagonist who probably shouldn’t be investigating whatever happened, but does so, and is almost invariably a woman, with a different career. The particular ones I was reading were food related – with the woman of investigatory skills being, respectively, the owner of a cookie shop, the manager of a chocolate shop, and the owner of a bed & breakfast.

So, though I’d not heard of Ms. Davidson, I thought I’d give one of the books a try, and started off with the first in the series (not knowing at the time there were fourteen more down the line already published and more on the way). Our heroine, this time, is a small town caterer in Colorado, divorced from an abusive husband, best friends with another ex-wife of the same guy, and a single mom with a newly budding adolescent. She is befriended by a local sheriff’s department investigator as the story progresses, who strangely seems to encourage her poking around in police business.

Let me save a little on suspense – I ended up reading all fifteen books in rapid succession – they’re easy reads, most taking me no more than a couple of hours, before bed, and I read the entire series in about five weeks. I’ll admit upfront that I found most of them in pirated e-book form (not that hard copies of more than the couple at the bookstore I started at are likely available here is really an excuse, but it’s the one I’m using). They weren’t amazingly well written, but they were fun, light reading, and I even tried some of the recipes from a couple of the books and they worked.

There’s a lot of belief to be suspended – a caterer (named Goldy, who runs a company called Goldilocks Catering: Where Everything is Just Right) who becomes an unofficial investigator for the local sheriff’s department – by midway through the series, both the noted investigator and others are pretty much actively encouraging her to do things that they themselves can’t because, well, it would be illegal. That anyone would hire this woman as a caterer… the fifteen books take place over a period of about four years, and each involves the murder of one or more of her clients or friends… for a total of around two dozen people dead, or about six a year… umm, no thank you, I’ll be taking my business elsewhere. Top that with her going about looking into people’s personal business in this small town, accusing one or another of them of murder, robbery, and mayhem, yet, these same people don’t seem to hold a grudge, reappearing later on to hire her for some event, or hang out with her at a party. A skewed timeline – part way through series she’s talking about having spent more than a decade building her catering business since her divorce, she’s 33 or 34 at the time, she spent seven years married to her abusive husband, who she supposedly met after college when she moved to Colorado… which pretty much puts her university years from ages 12-16. Oh, and at this same point in her early 30s, she spends at least a few paragraphs every novel lamenting the fact that she’s gotten old and can’t get around like she used to.

Of course, the last might be due to her diet, which seems to consist of everything fat-laden that she, her family and friends, can get their hands on (don’t try any of the books’ recipes if you’re even thinking about being health conscious). Even her assistant, a die-hard vegetarian (who nonetheless will cook whatever) agrees with her oft repeated comments that nothing lowfat or fat free can possibly be edible – as they load things down with cheese, cream and butter, repeatedly – even for clients who have requested lowfat or one or another special diet – time after time she simply decides that her clients are wrong about what they want and serves them whatever she wants. And a few other prejudices show up – in one book mid-series she, and a local doctor, have cured her assistant of his vegetarianism because the lack of protein in his diet was having him waste away or something (with all that dairy, not a chance, let alone whatever other sources of protein a good vegetarian diet provides) – but, she must have gotten some flack on that one because without comment, by the next novel, he’s back to being vegetarian, and suddenly in the peak of health, with a well-developed body, and is apparently irresistible to the local girls.

And, like the other novels I read, there’s not really much investigating going on. She pretty much does the shotgun approach to things, fantasizing and being paranoid about everyone she and whomever is dead has come into contact with, bulldozing into their lives with no regard for them, her own or anyone else’s safety, and, oh yeah, she never actually solves a single one of the crimes – in the end, she just annoys the killer so much that they seem to think she’s getting close to solving the mystery (which she’s not), so time and again, they come after her, attempt to kill her, and she is saved by either dumb luck or someone else happening to be keeping an eye on her that she doesn’t know about.

So that’s a lot to set aside. But somehow, Davidson makes the prose work, the books read well, and are enjoyable. So I can’t kick too much. Even if I’d like to.


Foul or Fowl?

Louisville, Kentucky – Who’s the turkey with a taste for homicide? So reads the subtitle on Mary Daheim’s Fowl Prey. Publisher’s Weekly referred to it as “light and cozy fare.” Given my experience with the last two “murder mysteries” I barely wanted to crack the wishbone on this one. The subtitle wasn’t helping.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. Once again we have a protagonist who has nothing really to do with the detecting world. The closest this one comes is having been the childhood sweetheart of a hometown detective, for whom she still harbors a major crush, and more or less pines away hoping he’ll divorce his wife. While off on a vacation with her cousin, our girl discovers the dead body of a local popcorn vendor. She also runs into a group of old high school friends and their friends, who happen to be vacationing at the same spot. She spends the rest of the novel, sneaking around gathering clues (there are actually real clues in this one!), and successively building cases against each of this old gang. She’s smart enough, in a change from the other novels, not to run around tossing off accusations. She’s not quite smart enough to share things she finds with the local police – instead just letting them know about random things she uncovers. In the end she sort of actually figures out whodunit, though not in time to catch the crook. The book wraps up with a gathering of all as she explicates her deductive reasoning, and then heads home.

So this wasn’t a disappointment as mystery books go. There was some suspense, there was a plot, there was some vague background romance, even if more of a fantasy. I enjoyed the read. I only have one criticism as far as the writing itself goes – the author makes the detectives – Canadian police and RCMP – out to be a bit bumbling, and somehow only capable of solving the case with the help of a couple of Americans from the other side of the border, who also, of course, bring in the ex-boyfriend, now-detective’s assistance.

Finally, and not a criticism of the book, but a “why was this one recommended as a food-related mystery” question; there wasn’t a whole lot of food. The protagonist is the owner of a bed and breakfast, but the novel doesn’t take place there, nor do her cooking abilities come into play at any point in the story. Being on vacation, she and her cousin eat out alot, and they talk about eating quite a bit, but not much about the actual food they are having – almost like the author has heard about dishes at fancy restaurants and used their names, but didn’t quite know what they were in order to venture further. There’s a fair amount of discussion about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, but it’s mostly who’s bringing what and will they solve the case in time to be there for dinner (that, and a dead parakeet seem to be the only connections to both title and subtitle). And, of course, the victim was a vendor of popcorn, though that plays no particular part in the storyline.

Nonetheless, each of these three books has given me things to think about. I guess we’ll have to see if I can do any better?!


Chocoholic Mystery

New York City – Continuing on with my reading of “first novels” of food related mysteries, I moved on to JoAnna Carl’s The Chocolate Cat Caper. Her name is a pseudonym for a “multipublished mystery writer.” That worried me right off the bat. This is supposed to be a mystery. She, or he, is a writer of mysteries. Why the unwillingness to be associated with this book series? Perhaps there are legal reasons, who knows? But it left me wondering.

The book is definitely a step up from the one I reviewed yesterday. The prose itself is clearer, and written for adults with normal intelligence. There is a plot! There’s even a bit of mystery and suspense. And I didn’t find myself putting it down repeatedly wishing that I didn’t have to pick it up and continue.

Two pet peeves, or one, and a peeve that isn’t a pet. First, the inconsistent use of dialect. For effect, here and there, the dialog is in accented form, e.g., a Texas drawl, but only sometimes. Second, the protagonist has a quirk of saying the wrong, but “similar” sounding word at the end of sentences. It might have been a cute quirk if it popped up only under pressure, but it’s throughout the book, including in casual conversation. The character also always catches herself doing it. And the words aren’t always all that similar. After a bit, it just becomes irritating.

Once again the nutshell version… The manager of a chocolate shop is witness to the death of a client that turns out to be a murder by poisoning. Cyanide in the chocolates that she herself had delivered to the client. In this case, she doesn’t act particularly as a detective, but more as a snoopy witness. Clearly she is trying to make sure that neither she nor her aunt, the owner of the chocolate shop, is accused of the crime, and therefore has a vested interest in being nosey. The story is told from her point of view, and as a reader, we don’t learn anything that she doesn’t, and most of it is either overheard comments, observations, and gossip. A bit comes from interviews with the police detectives, who, rightfully, do all the investigating. Once again, however, the crime isn’t “solved” – rather, on the flimsiest of excuses, the murderer essentially decides to confess to her and take her hostage (for no real apparent reason), a situation from which she is rescued mostly by dumb luck. Once again, the police arrive and wrap things up.

One of the things I want in a murder mystery is mystery. I’d like to have a credible detective, investigator, even a civilian snoop, but credible. And I’d like to get the same clues that they get as they piece together the crime – giving me the opportunity to possibly beat them to the conclusion; or possibly to even be surprised by a turn of events. Both this, and the previous book, basically offer no solid clues to the reader (or the protagonist), and merely have things wind up solved more or less by accident.

Perhaps that’s why JoAnna Carl is a pseudonym…


Cozy Murders?

New York City – I was given advice by someone who supposedly knows about such things. So I took it. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel that has a lot of food and wine in it, but is something in the vein of a thriller, or murder mystery, or crime sort of thingy. You can see it’s not a well formed idea. But her suggestion was that I start by reading some of the “better” food related murder mysteries out there. She gave me a list of three authors, and I picked up the first book in each of their series. I’ve just finished the first one, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke.

Now, I don’t know Ms. Fluke, though according to the inside cover of the book she was born and raised in a small town in rural Minnesota and now live in Southern California. Various critics expressed such things as perfect comfort read and cleverly-plotted cozy and hard to put down. I’m not entirely clear what a comfort read or a cozy is. I do know that I put the book down. Repeatedly.

To summarize the plot, as best I can determine it… The owner of a cookie store finds the dead body of a friend behind the store. Her brother-in-law, a budding detective on the local small town police force, for unknown reasons, enlists her help as an unofficial investigator. She then proceeds to nose about into the business of anyone connected with the dead man (and a few who aren’t and appear in the book for no apparent reason); one after another, on the flimsiest of evidence, not only assuming that they are each in turn guilty, but bluntly proceeds to accuse them of being guilty. Brother-in-law soon to be promoted seems to spend virtually the entire time sitting in his office catching up on paperwork but not answering his phone. In the end, she uncovers the murderer, not through investigation (as one by one the “clues” that she finds end up having nothing to do with the crime), but because the murderer confesses to her out of the blue while she’s busy accusing someone else of the crime. Brother-in-law arrives in time to put the cuffs on the perpetrator and take the credit.

Beyond the bumbling plot and unnecessary characters, the writing and dialogue seems to be aimed at someone with an IQ equal to the number of chapters in the book (26). Random narrative explicates character facets and background, and local “color,” presumably intended to flesh out the book and create some sort of sense of being there. Instead it does little more than confuse and obscure what there is of a plot. The next book in the series is the Strawberry Shortcake Murder (apparently she expands her cookie business). I somehow doubt I’ll be reading it.

Some additional notes… the book contains quite a few cookie recipes, I didn’t try them out, they sounded good. There is, however, a peculiar scene near the beginning of the book that describes the cookie store owner making coffee for her store. She puts the ground coffee in a bowl, crushes a whole egg or two, shell and all, into it, and adds salt. Then she puts the whole mess into a paper coffee filter and brews the coffee. Someone didn’t do her research, or I’m misreading this passage. I had a vague recollection of this process, but not for filtered coffee. Sure enough, the method is used to brew coffee that uses boiling water – traditionally, where the whole mess is thrown in a pot of boiling water, brewed, and then allowed to settle. Think more or less like clarifying a stock – the whole egg is boiled with everything, it draws the proteins and “trash” to it, and then can be skimmed off or settles out. You might get away with it in a percolator or “vesuvio” type pot (the modern version being a Chemex hourglass pot), where the water is brought to a boil, but even that’d be questionable. The whole idea of the process is to boil the egg with the grounds, not to just pass boiling water through the egg and grounds. It was a method of filtration… if you’re already using a filter, it’s unnecessary. And, in a modern drip coffee maker, the water isn’t hot enough to even coagulate the egg. The salt, by the way, isn’t unusual, and a pinch of salt in with your coffee grounds will help smooth out the bitterness, if you prefer your coffee smoother.