Humans. When they baffle you, reach for chocolate.
Leslie Budewitz, As The Christmas Cookie Crumbles, Kindle Loc. 943
I find it hard to believe that it’s been four years since I caught up with Leslie Budewitz’s Food Lovers’ Village Mystery series. Perhaps because of that hiatus, I noticed something different. Leslie’s writing is cozier—more sink in the cushions and disappear from reality—reading than it ever was before. For those of us who like our cozy reads to be like biting into the center of a warm, soft chocolate cookie still gooey and melty, the reading was awesome.
Not to say that it avoids some harsh realities about people and how they treat each other, but Leslie makes the effort to provide the soft contrast to the black and white thinkers who judge without compassion, and isn’t compassion the essence of cozies?
Set during the weeks before Christmas and the wedding of main character Erin Murphy, As The Christmas Cookie Crumbles portrays the best, worst, and sometimes goofiest of human behavior during this season. This book will be released on June 8th.
Erin witnesses a fight among members of the Thornton family. Who are the Thorntons, and why is Erin shocked?
Walt and Taya Thornton run an antiques and Christmas shop in the village of Jewel Bay, up the block from the Merc, the local foods grocery Erin runs in her family’s hundred-year-old building. Once Erin’s kindergarten teacher, Taya has always embodied the Christmas spirit to Erin – she even looks like an elf. So when she yells at her daughter to go away, saying “You’ve shamed us enough” on the sidewalk on Decorating Day, in front of dozens of people, Erin is stunned. She knows Merrily Thornton’s past – everyone in town does -- but hurts for the woman, humiliated by her own mother in public.
That is an astute observation. Taya had reason to question what she thought she knew, but chose not to, because she feared what else she might learn.
Merrily Thornton pleaded guilty to embezzlement twenty years ago and served time. Why does Erin trust her?
It’s not a blind trust. Erin likes her, knows she did her time, and sees signs of rehabilitation. That’s enough, she thinks, to start a friendship.
What’s an earworm, and what plagues Erin during the season?
An earworm is a song that gets stuck in the brain – like the very worst Christmas songs that wrap their way around Erin’s brain stem!
Like so often happens to me, Erin can’t remember someone’s name. Does Erin focus on other aspects of humans other than their labels?
Erin prides herself, as I do, on having a great memory and easily coming up with other people’s names. But there is one woman in town whose name she can never remember, also like me. (After 15 years, I’ve finally begun to recognize her when I see her out without her husband, whom I easily recall, or without having to ask mine “Who was that?”) I thought it would be fun to give the usually-sharp Erin that same frustration.
Erin’s mom Fresca thinks trust is more important than risk. But Erin starts writing procedures for the store to reduce that risk. Does Erin think naiveté equals stupidity?
No. But she’s worked in big business as well as small, and knows how easy it is for small businesses to overlook the importance of simple things like policies on cash-handling or computer use. And she knows that employees generally want to have regular reviews and manuals they can refer to. Plus she’s going on vacation – her honeymoon – and her staff will need to take care of things without calling her!
How do we empower people in our lives who don’t deserve that power?
Oh, great question! As you’ve suggested, fear is one way, and not questioning them is another. Probably the biggest way, I suspect, is not trusting our own instincts about people. We want to like and be liked, and easily dismiss our own misgivings instead of digging into them a little deeper.
What is a “Splash” artist?
Luci is a soapmaker and recurring character who sells her products at the Merc. She calls her business “The Splash Artist.” Soap, baths, bubbles….
“Back inside, the scent of lavender mingled with cocoa and coffee.” (Loc 230)
Are scents important to the Christmas season? Are they important to the retail season?
Oh, yes! Turns out that memory and scent are closely tied; both are located in the limbic system of the brain and evolved early in human development. That’s why we can catch a whiff of cologne and find ourselves thinking of a boyfriend who wore it 30 years ago before even noticing the scent. And because holidays, especially Christmas, also build on memory and tradition, I think scents play a big role in our enjoyment of them. And occasionally, of less positive memories as well. As for scent and retail, there’s a thing called “scent marketing,” where retailers deliberately evoke a scent to trigger that limbic response and, they hope, a purchase. Erin won’t stoop to something that deliberate, but if the aroma of chocolate or strawberry jam seeps out of the Merc’s commercial kitchen into the shop itself, how could that be a bad thing? < smile >
Why hasn’t Erin met any of her husband-to-be’s family, the Zimmermans?
Adam left Minnesota for college and has never gone back. His and Erin’s work schedules made a visit impossible. He’s never felt close to his family, and envies the bonds the Murphys share. At times, though, maybe they are a little too close!
Would you describe Almond Bianchi? Fudge Ecstasies?
Almond Bianchi are meringues made with ground nuts, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth clouds. And Fudge Ecstasies? The name says it all, don’t you think?
Like Ms. Marple, are people who assume the worst of people realistic, or are they insecure, judgmental, negative and/or guilty?
Ah, the eternal debate: Is the pessimist realistic, or choosing to dwell on the negative? Is the optimist naïve, or choosing to focus on the best in people? Depending on your own point of view, you could make either case. I think our point of view is a choice, and it affects all our interactions and experiences. Put simply, we see what we want to see – which the pessimist would call blindness and the optimist might call generosity. We do have to recalibrate our perceptions at times, which can keep one up at night.
What is it about a Subaru that Erin likes? Do you drive a Subaru?
I love my Subaru! It and the Chevy pickup seem to be the semi-official vehicles of Northwest Montana – and no doubt of other regions with lots of mountains, weather, and people who love getting out of doors like Erin and I do. Their biggest advantages are solid construction and all-wheel drive – plus a hatchback that even a small dog can jump into!
Why does Erin decide to put some Jewish holiday décor in the Merc beside the Christmas decorations?
As she strolls past the shop windows, she realizes that the village has overlooked Hannukah, and thinks maybe a reminder would be a good idea.
You change to present tense occasionally during your story. What were the instances, and why did you decide to do that?
I use present tense to describe places and traits that are ongoing or continuous, much as we do in regular conversation. “Oliver ran down the street,” but “Oliver is short.” A first-person narrative should feel like Erin telling the reader the story, and I wanted to play up that narrator-reader connection.
Erin doesn’t trust outsider Detective Bello (love the name), who displays “short-man” syndrome issues. How does she deal with him?
At first, she’s irritated. He comes into this town, not knowing a thing about it, or her, and dismisses her observations. Tells her he’s not going to let her interfere with his investigation. “His investigation? Since when? This is her town, too.” But she comes to realize he does know how to run a murder investigation, and he comes to understand that her knowledge of of the community is invaluable. As the danger heats up, she appreciates his protectiveness of his new patch. And as the investigation drags on, he appreciates her doggedness. They’ll never be completely comfortable with each other, I suspect, but they do develop a mutual respect.
Why do people use “the exception proves the rule” in arguments?
Turns out the phrase comes from science, and uses “prove” not in the sense of “confirm” but in the sense of “test.” Like when we did proofs in high school math.
There’s an “embezzlement pattern,” which Bello refers to, but the pattern doesn’t seem to apply to Merrily. What is the “embezzlement pattern?” Why does Bello apply it to Merrily when it doesn’t fit?
This is something I encountered years ago in my law practice. Not to get too detailed, but many embezzlers are your next door neighbor, women with positions of trust in small businesses where they had easy access to money and the means to cover up their deception. A lot of research has focused on this pattern and the reasons for embezzlement, which do tend to differ between men and women. And it does fit Merrily now, but not in the past, which leads Erin to probe the past.
There’s nothing better in a cozy than cookies proving the time of death. How do cookies prove the time of Merrily’s death?
Ooh. How to answer without a spoiler? Erin sees what Merrily had been making for a cookie exchange, realizes what steps remained, and worked backwards to figure out the time of death. Naturally, Detective Bello is skeptical. But he’s newly arrived in Montana from Florida, and a cookie sometimes called a snowball is new to him! (Well, maybe it isn’t, but he is a skeptical kind of guy!)
What is Chocolate Cabernet sauce, and what does it best top?
Eight ounces semi-sweet or a combination of semi-sweet and bitter chocolate, melted, with a cup of heavy cream, a tablespoon of butter, a teaspoon of vanilla, and two tablespoons of Cabernet or another red wine. Mmmm. Erin first tastes this treat at the Summer Art & Food Festival in Crime Rib and recreates it for the reader in Butter Off Dead. It’s best served on ice cream. We were given a bottle of a pourable version a few years ago, went to buy more, and discovered it was no longer available, so I searched out a few recipes and created our own, which is thicker, almost fudge-like. I think I hear a jar calling me right now…
What kind of wedding cake did Adam and Erin choose?
You know, I never asked them! Readers, suggestions?
What’s next for Erin?
A nice long vacation in the sun. Seriously, she doesn’t know what Adam has planned their honeymoon, though he has told her to make sure her passport is current and promised to tell her what to pack at least three days before they leave. (I know where they’re going, but I’m not telling, either!)