A New Mexico Mystery Review: Feliz Navidead

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This third installment in the Santa Fe Café mystery series is tightly plotted, funny, and as full of local color and eccentric characters as the others. Ann Myers does a great job with the flow of the series—neither too much nor too little backstory. It’s a delicate balance that not all series authors have mastered. A new reader could pick this up and not be lost, and someone who has followed the series can enjoy it without any sense of interruption.

Protagonist Rita Lafitte’s rather conventional mother is visiting her in the City Different, encountering Rita’s eccentric friends and colleagues, hot chiles, devils in a Christmas pageant, and of course, Rita’s odd luck—if one can call it that—of running into murder scenes. There is some dark humor in the choice to set a murder in the middle of Christmas festivities, but it works. There’s also plenty of light humor, character-based and authentic.

The mystery revolves in part around the process of repatriating an old family collection of Native artifacts to their tribes. The conflicts in the wealthy heiress’s family—which includes Rita’s ultra-Santa-Fe-spacey-spiritual neighbor Dalia—and between the experts hired to help with the collection lead down some twisting paths, while several intriguing side plots make for more suspects and more motives. I was right in step with Rita in trying to solve the mystery, which to me means it was set up well.

Rita and café owner Flori’s amateur sleuthing is written to effectively make the reader suspend disbelief, an important aspect of this genre of mystery. Their interaction with Rita’s ex, Manny, who is so often the cop on the case when she’s investigating on her own, is well done. Manny isn’t all bad, and neither is his police work. He comes across as a competent if sometimes annoying officer, and a caring father as well as the kind of man you wouldn’t want for a husband. Celia, Rita’s artistic teenaged daughter, gets involved in the sleuthing this time, a fun change of pace. I love the relationships in this series, so it was great to meet another member of Rita’s family with her mother’s visit. It was also good to see how her romance with criminal defense lawyer Jake Strong develops. Jake’s character is given more depth and flair in this story. I got to know him better and therefore liked him better.

One thing I especially enjoyed about this book is that it gets outside of the downtown area into some other neighborhoods of Santa Fe, while still giving a view of holiday events around the Plaza and Canyon Road. (I expect it will make quite a few readers want to schedule a Christmas vacation there.) The diverse characters include one of Flori’s old schoolmates—another peculiar octogenarian—and her grandson. To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about them, but they were my favorite new additions to the cast of this series. And Flori’s latest weird hobby is her best yet. As always, there are recipes for some of the foods that are served up during the course of the story. I enjoyed the plot so much I tended to forget the culinary theme, but readers who love to cook will not. (Actually, the fact that I hate to cook and still enjoy these books so much says a lot.)

Other books in the series include Bread of the Dead and Cinco de Mayhem. Click on the titles to see my reviews, and on the author’s name for my interview with Ann Myers.

 

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A New Mexico Mystery Review: Cinco de Mayhem

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The story begins with a green chile and cheese soufflé—spicy, light and airy, and at risk of sudden collapse, setting the tone for a comic culinary mystery. Rita Lafitte and her colleagues at Tres Amigas, the Santa Fe café of the series title, get involved in solving a murder again. The victim is a petty, arrogant bully, a restaurateur and food cart operator who made enemies of all the other food cart owners in the city. Not an easy death to care about except that a friend of Rita’s is being framed for it. Linda Santiago, the unlucky accused, is a wonderful, original character from the first book who doesn’t fit any mold or any of the standard roles in a comic mystery. Another complex, intriguing and believable character is the multi-faceted Don Busco, hotdog vendor and raconteur. Others are more broadly drawn and provide great comedy, especially Addie, with her delightfully eccentric fantasies of being British, and eighty-something Flori with her flirtatious ways, her sleuthing hobby and her new fascination with Sun Tzu’s Art of War. They are wildly colorful, but not to the point of being impossible. Someone just might feel free to be that odd in The City Different.

It was good to see Rita still connected to the memory of Victor from the first book in a natural flow of her personal story from one book to the next, and to watch how her budding romance develops. Her relationship with her daughter is an ongoing part of the series that adds depth and realism and of course the inevitable humor and conflict of parenting a teenager.

I got a kick out of the arrival of a flamboyant professional thief and his role in the plot. With the high rate of burglaries and thefts in Santa Fe, he may have strong future in the series. There are only 2 or 3 murders a year, but people like him have a thriving occupation.

The setting is brought to life, though only a very small portion of the city is featured. The writing is tight and polished, digressing only for the food-related tidbits that narrator Rita and culinary aficionado readers would find irresistible. With several subplots and red herrings, the plot was paced to keep to me turning the pages even after I figured out the killer’s identity. The revelation scene was the only weak point. Even though almost every mystery handles it this way, I’m not a fan of this particular genre convention and love it when authors find another option for getting closure on the crime. The final ending was satisfying, however. And of course, there are recipes for some of the foods featured in the story, including the thematic soufflé that frames the tale.

To learn more about the series, you can read my review of Bread of the Dead and my interview with Ann Myers, and check out her web site.

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Ann Myers

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I’m happy to have Ann Myers, author of the Santa Fe Café Mysteries, as my guest today.

AF: Where did the inspiration for this story begin?

AM: Bread! I love baking and trying new recipes. I was baking up pan de muerto around the time I was brainstorming a culinary cozy and thought it would make a great title. Plus, it’s a marvelous bread, like a brioche but even better with anise and orange flavors and you can shape it like a skull and crossbones. What other bread has all that?

AF: Your book shows your love for the City Different. What’s your history with Santa Fe?

AM: This is where my main character Rita and I share a bit of similarity (along with our inability to dance). I’m originally from Pennsylvania and have lived in Louisiana, Japan, Ohio, and Florida and now Colorado. All great places, but like Rita I was instantly enamored with New Mexico and Santa Fe. Lucky for me, I get to go there a lot since moving to Colorado ten years ago. My husband researches water issues in New Mexico. It’s a never-ending project, and one I heartily encourage since it means summers and holidays in Santa Fe.

AF: Rita’s appreciation of food, kitchens, kitchen gadgets, and the art and meaning of cooking makes me think you must be a great cook yourself. Have you ever done it professionally or are you an enthusiastic amateur?

AM: Just an amateur cook and a very enthusiastic eater. Perhaps a little too enthusiastic? And, yeah, kitchen gadgets…I have a bit of a problem there too. Do I really need that raclette griddle that’s been languishing in my basement for years? Or the heavy cast-iron ebelskiver pan I was sure I’d use all the time, or the ice cream maker? Surely I’ll be making ice cream and round pancakes any moment now, so of course I’m hanging onto them. Lately, however, I’ve gotten better about sticking to small items, like cute old cookie cutters and cookbooks. You can never have too many cookbooks…

AF: What’s your favorite Santa Fe restaurant and why? You mention a few real ones in the books. Is that your tribute to them? And is Tres Amigas based on a real place?

AM: Oh, what a hard question. Santa Fe has so many great restaurants. My husband and I have a long list of places we have to visit when we’re in town, and the list keeps getting longer. One of my favorites is Tune-Up Café, which I couldn’t resist mentioning in the book. They make the best breakfast chiles rellenos with fried eggs and refried beans. So good! I also love Clafoutis for their fabulous French pastries, and I can always go for sopapillas, something I’d never make at home. I draw the culinary line at deep frying.

Tres Amigas is all fiction, or perhaps a mashup of some of my favorite cafés. I wanted someplace warm and cozy, serving up comfort-food favorites. The place I dream of having down the street from my house.

AF: I found details like Cass’s process making jewelry of fascinating. What was the most fun part of researching the book? What was the hardest part?

AM: Thanks! At the time I was writing Bread of the Dead, a friend and I were trying our hands at soldering and jewelry making. “Trying” is the key word for me. Whereas my friend was merrily wielding a giant flame, I was terrified by my tiny kitchen torch (which can melt metal, by the way). I did manage to master crème brûlée, and I learned a lot of about jewelry making, which I added to the book with Cass’s character.

Researching the food was also fun—and tasty! I’ve acquired a big stack of New Mexican cookbooks, including some great older ones with recipes from home cooks. Some of the recipes are simple in terms of ingredients but turn out so delicious. Like green chile stew, a basic stew but with loads of roasted green chiles. I’ve also enjoyed learning about Pueblo culinary traditions, both through reading and—better yet—attending Pueblo feast days, when residents invite family, friends, and strangers into their homes to eat. Such generosity and an amazing culinary feat to keep up a buffet for unknown numbers of guests. I always think of my family and how we’d stress out seeing hungry people lined up on the sofa, waiting to rotate in for a place at the table.

One of the research challenges I hadn’t anticipated was fitting my fictional places into the real landscape. Rita’s casita, for instance, is on a well-known street, although I didn’t have a particular address in mind. For Tres Amigas Café, I had a general idea of the location, but after my husband read the book, he thought it was somewhere else. In Feliz Navidead, I added an entire fictional hotel to the historic downtown since I wouldn’t want to be staging murders in real places. That took a lot of walking around and scoping out empty lots and worrying about how to make the fictional setting mesh with the actual one.

AF: Who are your favorite authors—mystery or other?

AM: I’m a huge mystery fan. It’s hard to pick favorites, although I adore British mysteries, such as those of Martha Grimes and Elly Griffiths. I’m also always reading cozy mysteries of all sorts. I love the everywoman heroines of cozies, as well as the craft/culinary/DIY themes. I’ve also recently discovered audiobooks, which I listen to at the gym or when working around the house. My local library has all the Hamish Macbeth mysteries on audio, and I went through at least a half-dozen while painting our house this fall. Fun to hear the Scottish accent read aloud and to imagine the bleak moors.

 AF: Tell me about your work in progress.

AM: Two more Santa Fe Café Mysteries are with my publisher right now! Cinco de Mayhem will be out in March 2016, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. In this book, Rita takes on a bully French chef, a corrupt food inspector, and a killer to help her friend Linda. She also has to come up with a perfect dinner date menu, a Southwest-French feast featuring a green chile and cheese soufflé.

The third book, Feliz Navidead, let me think of Christmas all last summer. So much fun, but also a little difficult to conjure images of snow and farolitos when sitting in front of a swamp cooler in our broiler Santa Fe rental casita. I won’t give away too much, but there is a devil involved and pie. I’m still trying to settle on the perfect pie recipe. So far I’ve tried a green chile, apple, cheddar (wow!) and a pumpkin brûlée. I’m thinking chocolate and red chile with a cookie crust should be next. Or maybe I’m delaying to have an excuse to make and eat more pie…

AF: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?

AM: How about a recipe for New Mexico’s official state cookie, the bizcochito? It’s a yummy, anise-flavored shortbread cookie, perfect for any special occasion and the upcoming holidays.

Bizcochitos

Bizcochito traditionalists swear by lard for the proper flavor and texture. If you can’t find good lard, or prefer not to use it, shortening or butter can be substituted. You can also spice up your cookies by adding some chile powder to the cinnamon sugar. Delicious!

Makes three to four dozen cookies, depending on cookie cutter size

Ingredients

1 c lard (or butter or shortening)

1 c sugar

2 eggs

2 T anise seeds

1 t vanilla extract

½ t salt

¼ c brandy, sweet wine, or an anise-flavored liqueur, OR apple or orange juice

4 c all-purpose flour

1½ t baking powder

Cinnamon-sugar topping

¼ c sugar

1 t ground cinnamon

¼ t (or more) red chile powder (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a stand or hand mixer, in a large bowl, cream the lard or butter until it is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, sugar, vanilla, and anise seed.

In separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir the lard mixture into the dry ingredients, along with the brandy (or juice). Mix until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. If you’re baking in a dry region like the Southwest, add a little more orange juice or brandy if the dough seems too shaggy or stiff. Form the dough into a ball.

Place on a lightly floured surface and roll out to about ¼ inch thick. Cut the cookies out, using your favorite cutter. Small round or rosette shapes are popular. You can also forgo a cookie cutter and simply cut the dough diagonally to form diamonds. After cutting, dip the front face of each cookie in the cinnamon sugar mixture (you might have to press the sugar in and/or sprinkle a little extra sugar on top). Place the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving a little space in between.

Bake until lightly golden and puffed, about 11 to 13 minutes. Cool on a rack. Bizcochitos store well in containers, if you can resist eating them all.

*****

Thank you, Ann. This has been delightful.

For more about the Santa Fe Café series and more recipes, go to http://www.annmyersbooks.com/

and https://www.facebook.com/AnnMyers.writer

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Bread of the Dead

 

bec99b44a2fd5c6e3780eab3ea253edbIn 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.

If you’re a cook, you’ll enjoy the final section: recipes for foods related to the story, including the Bread of the Dead.Day_of_the_Dead_Coyoacan_2014_-_136

Next week, look for an interview with Ann Myers.

http://www.annmyersbooks.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24392805-bread-of-the-dead