I’ve read Dorothy St. James’s work for many years. Her first cozy mysteries, the White House Gardener series, comprised three books. Her new cozy series, A Southern Chocolate Shop Mysteries, debuted in September, 2017. I read Asking for Truffle, the first in the series, but I waited until the second book, Playing with Bonbon Fire came out before asking author Dorothy St. James for an interview. Why?
I was overrun with fall/holiday releases. Publishers stack a heavy fall lineup. With the second in the series released in late March, I finally was able to fit her into our schedule. Although the books can stand alone, you will enjoy the series more reading them in order.
Main character, Charity Penn, has an interesting and most unfortunate backstory. She chooses to go by the name Penn rather than Charity because her cold paternal grandmother named her—and that’s all Penn was to her grandmother—a charity project. She doesn’t know who her mother is. She only knows she was dumped at her father’s family mansion by her mother, who then disappeared. By necessity, Penn has a hard shell. But she’s been burned in more ways than one. As a character, Penn solves mysteries, but she, in and of herself, is a mystery—one she is also tracking down and trying to solve.
Please welcome Dorothy St. James to WWK. E. B. Davis
Thank you for having me here. It’s always fun to talk with others about the stories that are so alive in my head.
How did the new series come about, Dorothy?
I love chocolate. Need I say more? Well, there is a bit more. I’d been playing with the idea of a chocolate shop mystery series ever since I’d started writing the White House Gardener mystery series. After my daughter was born, I knew I couldn’t write a series where I’d have to be traveling so much for research. So I went back to my chocolate shop series and set it in my back yard.
Your series is set in Camellia Beach, SC, as you describe, near to Charleston. Is Camellia Beach a fictionalized Sullivan’s Island?
Actually, Camellia Beach is a fictionalized Folly Beach. Like Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach is also one of the islands a few minutes from the historic City of Charleston. Unlike Sullivan’s, Folly is a more...um...unconventional. Instead of attracting the rich and powerful, Folly has historically attracted the artists and surfers and those who are looking for a freer way of living. In the past, some natives called it the “poor man’s beach.” I lived on Folly Beach for twenty years and fell in love with its raw beauty and its quirky residents. I always wanted to capture its specialness in the pages of a book.
Who is Granny Mae (who really isn’t Penn’s grandmother)?
Granny Mae is Penn’s rock. As you’ve pointed out, she’s not Penn’s grandmother. While Penn was growing up under her grandmother’s disapproving cold glare, Granny Mae worked as Grandmother Cristobel’s personal assistant. Granny Mae made sure that Penn was being taken care of. She stepped in and served as Penn’s mother. She loves Penn and is one of the few people in the world Penn trusts completely.
What brought Penn to Camellia Beach from Madison, Wisconsin?
Penn received a strange letter telling her that she won a trip to visit Camellia Beach. Now Penn, who has been tricked in the past by people who want to get close to her powerful and rich family, doesn’t enter contests. She suspects this is another trick by someone wanting to use her. A friend of hers volunteers to check things out for her. When he is found dead in a vat of chocolate in Camellia Beach, she knows she needs to go and see for herself what happened to him and why.
An old and bad boyfriend gave Penn a Papillon puppy, Stella. Stella bites. Why does Penn keep the dog?
Ah, Stella. She’s feisty. I love her to bits. Penn refuses to give up on her little dog. And in her own way, she loves her just as much as I love that barky Papillon. Penn knows what it feels like to be turned out of a home and discarded. Her own family has made it clear from the get-go that she’s an embarrassment and unwanted. She doesn’t have it in her heart to do that to Stella, even if the little dog likes to bite her.
The chocolate shop features some very different truffles, like, cheddar cheese and pretzel truffles and cayenne pepper truffles. Do most chocolate shops feature savory truffles or other unique products?
Spicy pepper truffles are much more common than they used to be. Historically cocoa isn’t something that is made into a sweet dish. The Aztecs and many of the South American natives today see the cacao bean and chocolate as an enhancement for savory recipes. When used in cooking it often adds a welcome earthiness. I’ve enjoyed playing with this aspect of chocolate that many in the modern world have forgotten. Plus, chocolate and cheese pair up wonderfully. So of course I had to try and develop a bonbon that included both.
What’s a melanger, and what is conching?
These strange things are terms used in the chocolate-making process. A melanger is a machine with two stone rollers that grind the cacao bean, mixing it with the sugar, cocoa butter, and any flavoring that you might want to add to it. The mixing is called conching. The original mixers resembled conch shells, and that’s where the name comes from. During the conching process the sharp taste of the fresh cocoa slowly disappears and the delicious chocolate flavor becomes fully developed. The process can take anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days.
Are Amar Cacao beans real?
I wish they were real! I dearly want to eat them. No, the Amar bean is a fabrication of my sweet-tooth. But the bean does have some basis reality. There are rare and wonderful (and sometimes endangered) varieties of cacao beans growing in the South American rain forest. During my research, I learned that some of the rarest beans are the hardest to grow and are often the most flavorful. I played with that idea and created the rarest and best tasting bean for my special chocolate shop by the sea.
Why does Penn have an aversion to physical contact, like getting a hug?
Penn’s family is a real piece of work. They treated her like an unwanted waif because her mother had abandoned her on her father’s doorstep as an infant. The powerful Penn family wasn’t ready to accept a bastard into their ranks. They still aren’t. So as you might imagine, hugs were rare. When she started school, she quickly learned that kindness and physical contact were often traps. Many of her “friends” were only interested in her family’s money and position in society. They didn’t actually care about her.
Although Penn seems to like Camellia Beach and the chocolate shop, she doesn’t adjust very well to the environment and work. Why does she still wear business suits to make chocolate and wait on customers?
Penn was raised by a well-to-do family where appearance, especially business appearance, was important. As a result, she has a difficult time adjusting to a more laid-back lifestyle. She thinks she needs to wear her business attire because, after all, she’s running a business.
Out of her father’s family, the only relation who makes a relationship with Penn is her half-sister Tina. How did this occur?
Tina is a decent human being. While Tina is the oldest legitimate child, Penn is her father’s oldest child. Every time their grandmother told Tina how much better she was, how she was more loveable, prettier, smarter than Penn, it pushed Tina to want to be closer to Penn. Tina could see the difference in how she and Penn were being treated, and it troubled her. Not only that, she loves her big sister and wants to spend time with her.
Penn isn’t very successful in following chocolate-making instructions. But she seems to be able to create candies intuitively. Why?
Penn loves chocolate. She thinks about chocolate all of the time. (I do too.) She pictures how different flavors will work together. Because of her obsession with chocolate, that part of the chocolate-making process comes quite naturally. Making a pretty bonbon or a fancy truffle, however, isn’t a skill she’s mastered...yet. Luckily, she has her partner Bertie to help out with the technical aspects of bringing together Penn’s flavor combinations.
In the first book, Penn finds her maternal grandmother, Mabel Maybank, only to lose her when she dies. How does Penn know Mabel is her grandmother?
Penn learns from the results of a DNA test at the end of the first book, Asking For Truffle, that she is indeed Mabel Maybank’s grandmother. Her friend, who was killed while investigating the chocolate shop and the town, had the DNA test results. But how did he get DNA samples for Penn and Mabel? These are questions Penn isn’t ready to ask until later in the series...
Mabel wills the chocolate shop to Penn. How do Mabel’s children feel about that?
Mabel’s children are furious. They had hoped to sell the land the shop is sitting on to a developer for a large profit. Penn, on the other hand, has no intention of selling the shop. She wants to keep it open as a way to honor her grandmother’s life work.
Although Penn is a trust-fund baby, she has no access to her money. Why?
Because of how Penn arrived into her paternal family’s life—as an infant left on their doorstep by a woman her father barely remembers ever meeting—she’s raised as an outsider. While pride dictates that Penn is set up with her fair share of the family fortune, her father and grandmother don’t believe she can be trusted with the money. She is, after all, the daughter of a woman who couldn’t even be bothered to raise her own child. They set up Penn’s trust-fund in a way that she has to ask a team of lawyers who answer to her stern grandmother for any disbursements of money. Determined to make it on her own, she rarely asks for money. And when she does ask, the answer is usually a resounding “no.”
Penn may have lost her maternal grandmother, but she’s inherited Mabel’s friends. Bertie, an older black woman and Mabel’s best-friend partner, stays to help Penn run the shop. Why does Penn live with Bertie and not her daughter, Althea, who is now Penn’s bestie?
Penn inherited not only the Chocolate Box, but the building that houses the shop. This building includes two apartments above the shop. Mabel, her maternal grandmother, lived in the apartment with her business partner and best friend, Bertie. After Mabel’s death, Penn moved into Mabel’s old bedroom. While Althea is Penn’s closest friend, Bertie provides Penn with stability and friendship that she craves. Plus, the commute to the Chocolate Box is super easy. All she has to do is walk down the steps to get to her shop.
Why is Althea such an unlikely best friend for Penn? Will Althea’s differences be good for Penn?
Penn and Althea are quite the opposites. Penn hates magic. She believes anyone claiming to have magical powers is out to con the other person out of their money. Althea believes in all things magical, including witchcraft, ghosts, and the power of crystals. She runs a crystal shop in Camellia Beach. Penn finds it difficult to trust others. Althea trusts everyone, until given reason not to. You wouldn’t think they would get along at all. But Althea believes that fate has brought Penn to Camellia Beach and into her life. Every time Penn tries to push her away, Althea “blesses her heart” and is always there when Penn needs her. Althea’s devotion and steadfastness are what finally win Penn over.
One of Mabel’s daughters confesses that she is Penn’s mother, but her story doesn’t match her father’s story of the one-night stand. Penn doesn’t believe the woman. Why doesn’t she want to believe her?
Florence Corners begrudgingly admits that she’s Penn’s mother. It’s not at all the touching reunion that Penn had hoped to have with her long-lost mother. She’d concocted all sorts of stories explaining why her mother had to leave her and never contact her again. She’d dreamed that one day her mother would come and tearfully explain that she was a spy, someone stuck in witness protection, or on the run from some bad character. The only way she could protect Penn would be to leave her behind.
Florence tells Penn that she didn’t want a child, that she’s never wanted a child. The coldness of the confession leaves Penn feeling lost. Of course she doesn’t want to believe this woman. Not only that, her story and her father’s stories about how they met are so different. Florence has to be lying. Penn isn’t ready to let go of her fantasy. There has to be a woman out there who is hurting, who is longing to love her daughter, but because of some terrible circumstance, she cannot.
What’s next for Penn?
Penn finds herself in the center of yet another mystery in the third book of the Southern Chocolate Shop Mystery series, In Cold Chocolate (September 2018). Sea turtles eggs are disappearing from the beach. Penn’s newest creation, chocolate sea-salt turtles are disappearing from her shop. The death of the local playboy complicates everything and compels Penn to dig up a mystery many of the residents on the island would rather keep buried.
If you had your druthers, would you live at the beach or in the mountains, Dorothy?
The beach, of course! While I love visiting the mountains and I love splashing around in a clear water lake, the gentle song of the waves and the tang of the salt in the air are heaven to me.