In some ways this is the coziest of cozy mysteries, full of food and folk art, but in other ways it’s not typical of the genre. The victim is not only important to the amateur sleuth but to the reader. He’s the most deeply appealing and complex character in the story. In a light sort of mystery, the loss of such a person is unusual. It gives the protagonist a strong reason to do that otherwise unbelievable thing—amateur sleuthing—and it also makes the story function on two levels: solving a puzzle with all the usual elements of a cozy; and contemplating life, death and legacy, good works and grieving. The mood and meaning of the Day of the Dead festival—reconnection with the beloved departed—is central to the story and is set beautifully at the beginning.
Myers has a wonderful way with words and uses culinary imagery with flawless precision, true to her narrator’s point of view. Foodies will love this book. The amateur sleuth, Rita Lafitte, is a cook, and the food theme is woven smoothly throughout. Recipes and their meaning to friends and family form a framework that turns the plot in a way that even a kitchen-impaired reader like myself could enjoy.
The Santa Fe setting is rendered in detail that will satisfy any would-be visitor who hasn’t been there yet and wants to take a fantasy trip, and will spark memories for those who have visited before. At times, I felt as if the author had tried a little too hard to fit as much local color in as possible, but overall the portrait of the City Different and its environs was painted well, from Pueblo speed traps to purple taxis to the famous Plaza—and the food, of course.
A few of the characters and events are entertainingly over-the-top, while others are realistic, another aspect of this book’s dual personality. I found the spiritual materialism of Broomer, the irritable owner of an expensive Zen garden, unfortunately true to some aspects of Santa Fe life. The arts center for teens reflects a fictitious version of a real and vital part of the city.
I can’t say why I suspected the real culprit early on, and I was frequently thrown off the trail by other suspects and plausible motives. The final solution and the revelation still came as a surprise, as the various strands of the story came together in one of the most elegantly crafted discovery scenes I’ve read.
Next week, look for an interview with Ann Myers.