By Sherry — I met Maureen through a manuscript exchange through the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime in 2013. She’s amazing and I’m so glad I said yes to that exchange! Maureen’s latest books is Murder in the Moonshine, the third book in her Rita Calabrese Culinary Mystery series.
Here’s a little about the book: When her twin sister asks for help drumming up interest in her newest real estate listing—a mothballed old mansion that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy and FDR hangout—Rita readily agrees. Planning an over-the-top Jazz Age-themed soirée, she dusts off her vintage recipes for lemon cake and oysters Rockefeller, casts her son Vinnie and his best friend Rocco as the G-men who will stage a “raid,” and even enlists the culinary services of Rocco’s mom, the beautiful but troubled Fran, who has just been released from prison.But when Vinnie and Rocco stage their “raid”, what they find in the old dairy barn behind the mansion isn’t moonshine…but a dead body. The citizens of Acorn Hollow are eager to point the finger at Rocco and Fran, but Rita isn’t buying it. Like the multi-tasking mother she is, she’s determined to prove their innocence—all while mentoring a sulky teen-aged intern, unmasking the identity of the newspaper’s new male advice columnist, and encouraging her daughter’s fledgling romance with a hunky teacher.Featuring mouth-watering recipes for Italian classics, including bruschetta and tiramisu!
Maureen: Take one bucolic small town, add in a slightly (but lovably) flawed sleuth, and bring the tension to a boil with shocking (but not grisly) murder. Season with a few eccentric characters and, if desired, spice it up with a little romance, a light history lesson, and a few intriguing subplots…and voilá! You have a cozy mystery.
Sounds easy, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not. Just like the recipe for your favorite baked good, there’s chemistry involved. Here’s how I try to bring these ingredients together:
- The town. The series I most enjoy feature towns that are almost characters in themselves, and whose history and culture—and the unique residents—help propel the action. For my series, I chose the fictitious Acorn Hollow, set in New York’s real Hudson Valley. Why? Because the area is incredibly scenic, steeped in Italian-American culture and cuisine, rich in fascinating colonial and American history (home of FDR!), and dotted with small towns and wineries—the perfect setting for an Italian-American matriarch turned small town reporter who loves to garden and cook. And I love using the region’s history as a source of inspiration—a “Secret in Thyme,” for example, opens with Acorn Hollow’s three hundredth anniversary. When the town’s time capsule is flung open to reveal a skeleton, the plot thickens!
- The sleuth. There are so many considerations when creating a new sleuth—he or she needs to be interesting, likeable, relatable…and have some compelling reason to solve mysteries! The author needs to know the main character inside and out, and the character needs to solve the case in a way consistent with her character, motivations, and abilities. My protagonist, Rita Calabrese, is very much a product of Acorn Hollow’s Italian-American community; she cooks Italian, speaks Italian (mostly to her dogs, Luciano and Cesare), and even has an operatic ring tone. She makes secret deliveries of gnocchi and biscotti to down-on-their-luck neighbors, which means that while she doesn’t have the same resources the police do, she has insights into her neighbors that they lack – plus her second act as a reporter gives her a reason to investigate! An important part of Rita’s identity is that she is a fiercely proud Italian mamma. A lot of the series’ humor and most of its subplots involve her attempts to “problem-solve” – what her grown children would call “meddle.” She’s smart, sassy, determined, vulnerable, good-hearted and yes, sometimes exasperating – that’s what makes her fun…and a character I never get tired of writing.
- The murder. An unusual murder weapon is always good, but to me the most important thing is a great motive – a compelling but unusual reason for murder that is completely in keeping with the relationship between killer and victim. As a reader, I love discovering new and surprising things about the victim…each of which continually cause the sleuth (and the reader) to adjust their assumptions. In “The Secret Poison Garden,” the victim is the town’s beloved, soon-to-be-married football coach…or is he really that beloved?
- Eccentric characters. I’m a sucker for a lovably eccentric supporting cast, especially when these characters have unique perspectives or abilities that help the sleuth solve the mystery. Many readers say their favorite character in my series is the much-feared Widow Schmalzgruben, a centenarian who sits in the cemetery, day after day, reading the newspaper to her three deceased husbands. She’s actually based on a real person who lived in Staunton, Virginia, and did indeed read the newspaper on her husbands’ tombs. What I love about the character is that—as someone even older than Rita—she has an encyclopedic knowledge of every family in town. She also has a wry sense of humor.
- The food. Cooking scenes work best, I think, when they (a) showcase what the character would really cook, (b) move the plot or character arc forward, and (c) make readers’ mouths water. That’s not an easy thing to pull off! Rita cooks mostly Italian food, of course, often with produce from her garden. Sometimes, her cooking moves the plot along; in “Murder in the Moonshine,” the act of making tiramisu jogs her memory about a key event the night of the murder. Other times, they’re a vehicle for expressing her emotions; in “The Secret Poison Garden,” she’s furious with her husband and son for keeping secrets from her, so she cooks up some really, really spicy pasta all’arrabbiata!
Readers: What’s your idea of a recipe for a good cozy?
Bio: Maureen Klovers is the creator of the Rita Calabrese Italian-American culinary cozy series set in New York’s Hudson Valley, as well as a traditional mystery series set in Washington, D.C., featuring bellydancer-turned-sleuth Jeanne Pelletier. A former spy and middle school teacher, she has a keen sense of adventure: she’s hiked through the jungle to Machu Picchu, toured a notorious Bolivian prison with a German narco-trafficker, and fished for piranhas in Venezuela. She’s the mother of a toddler and a black Lab and enjoys testing recipes and speaking Italian.