"This First in a New Series Is Strong Enough to Stand Outside the Confines of Its Genre"
Reviewed by Diana Troldahl
Posted August 17, 2013
First in the new Food Lover's Village Mystery series,
DEATH AL DENTE focuses on main character Erin Murphy who has
moved back to her hometown to help her mother manage and
update her family's legacy, the store that has been known as
Murphy's Mercantile almost since the town of Jewel Bay,
Montana was founded.
Drawing on the area's small scale local agricultural and
food production, Erin has turned Murphy's Merc into a
welcoming place that features delicious locally grown food
and locally made culinary goods. To kick off the store's new
focus and feature the town's many gourmet restaurants, Erin
and the rest of the town are in the midst of putting on a
Festa Di Pasta when a murder of a close friend of Erin's
mother puts a tragic spin on the event.
This is Budewitz's first novel-length mystery, and it's a
good one. She has avoided the pitfalls of contrived plots,
pushy amateur detectives and shallow connection to the
deceased that plague a number of long-running cozy mystery
series and has produced a book even a non-mystery reader
will find engrossing and satisfying.
As a reader, you will come to care deeply about Erin and her
family as well as the cast of characters, each with their
own backstory and niche they fill in the small town of Jewel
Leslie Budewitz also deftly handles the expressions of grief
the murder victim evokes from her friends and acquaintances,
helping you become even more enmeshed in Erin's desire to
find the killer.
Although romance and dating plays a certain role in Erin's
life, her core relationship outside her family is one with
the town's sheriff's detective, Kim Caldwell, an estranged
friend who was as close as a sister when they were children.
This is a hallmark of the maturity and care with which DEATH
AL DENTE is crafted. It is not simply a formulaic cozy
mystery, it is a novel strong enough to stand beyond the
confines of its genre. I highly recommend it. Oh, and the
recipes included at the back of the book look
mouthwateringly delicious and simple to prepare, too.
Leslie Budewitz has published a non-fiction reference book
called Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately
about Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure as well as
several short mystery stories and is currently working on
the first book in another cozy mystery series, the Seattle
Spice Shop series.
The town of Jewel Bay, Montana—known as a Food
Lovers' Village—is obsessed with homegrown and
homemade Montana fare. So when Erin Murphy takes over her
family's century–old general store, she turns it into
a boutique market filled with local delicacies. But Erin's
freshly booming business might go rotten when a former
employee turns up dead?
Murphy's Mercantile, known as the Merc, has been a staple in
Jewel Bay for over a hundred years. To celebrate their
recent makeover as a gourmet food market, Erin has organized
a town festival, Festa di Pasta, featuring the culinary
goods of Jewel Bay's finest—including her mother
Fresca's delicious Italian specialties.
But Erin's sweet success is soured when the shop's former
manager, Claudette, is found dead behind the Merc on the
Festa's opening night. With rival chef James Angelo stirring
up rumors that Fresca's sauce recipes were stolen from
Claudette, Erin's mother is under close scrutiny. Now Erin
will have to hunt down some new suspects, or both her family
and her store might wind up in hot water?
INCLUDES FRESH, DELICIOUS RECIPES!
"Who put these huckleberry chocolates on the front
counter?" I grabbed the stack of purple boxes crammed with
gooey huckleberry–filled chocolate wannabes swathed in
purple foil and shoved them onto an open shelf on the side
wall, next to the herbal snoose.
"I did, honey," my mother said. "Our customers love
"Our customers," I said, "buy one for seventy–five
cents and walk around the store, so preoccupied with
unwrapping it and indulging their sweet tooth that they
can't fathom buying Montana–made goat cheese, or
buffalo jerky, or your pastas and sauces. Then they grab a
napkin that costs us five cents apiece to wipe purple goo
off their fingers, and half of them drop it on the floor.
There goes our profit."
My mother scowled. "Erin, what on earth has gotten into
you? Why do you hate huckleberry chocolates?"
"I don't hate huckleberry chocolates. I love huckleberry
chocolates. But we can't rebuild this business on fake food
and chemical sugar."
She picked up the boxes I'd just moved and carried them
back to the cash register. "We have always had huckleberry
chocolates right here, where the customers can see them."
"Mom, you hired me to run the place, remember? To shake
"Some things shouldn't be changed."
"Mom, we agreed. The Merc will die if it's just another
knickknacky gift shop. But an artisan market for local and
"Those are local. They're made five miles from here, by a
woman you've known half your life."
"With high–fructose corn syrup and milk chocolate
that tastes like rancid Hershey's. If we find a vendor using
fresh berries, real sugar, and high–quality fair trade
dark chocolate, sixty percent cocoa solids or better, I will
build the Great Pyramid of huckleberry chocolates right
here." I jabbed at a spot on the oak floor, ten feet inside
the Merc's front door, little changed in the hundred years
since my grandfather Murphy built the place and opened the
town's first grocery. "I will worship at her kitchen stove.
I will put an ad in the paper and a post on Facebook
offering a free huckleberry truffle to everyone who walks in
that door. And if they aren't wrapped in purple paper, I
will even consider raising the price split."
My mother stared as though she didn't recognize me. Not
for the first time since I'd returned to Jewel Bay, Montana,
the hometown I couldn't wait to leave after high school,
fourteen years ago, to take over her struggling business so
she could focus on building her own product line.
And not, I was sure, the last.
"But Erin, chocolate isn't local. Neither is sugar."
Tracy, my shop clerk and sole employee, cocked her head, her
thick chestnut hair swaying. One elaborately beaded earring
brushed her plump shoulder.
"That's not the point." I reshelved the chocolates. Poor
things. Not their fault they represented the worst of the
specialty food market. Overprocessed and overpriced, they
were nothing more than overhyped M&Ms that melted in your
hand, and gummed up your mouth. "Our mission is to sell
high–quality natural and organic food. Real food.
Sustainably grown." We'd been over this, and my mother had
agreed, knowing the Merc desperately needed a change in
direction to survive. But while she'd turned over the reins,
she hadn't quite given up control. "We showcase the local,
but we won't sacrifice quality for proximity. We are selling
a vision—the natural taste of Montana."
"If it's made in Montana, it must be good." Tracy
repeated our new slogan in a singsong voice, her earrings
swaying like a drunk failing a field sobriety test. She
squeezed her Diet Coke can. Its metallic twang made my brain
"I think you're taking this Festa too seriously," my
mother said. Like you always do, I heard in her tone. "Why
don't you eat something? Slice up some tomatoes and fresh
mozzarella, with basil and that yummy herbed olive oil."
I groaned inwardly. The two women who ran Rainbow Lake
Garden had brought us incredible Early Girl tomatoes and
heavenly Genovese basil from their greenhouse. Perfect for
Caprese salad, the dish the angels serve when God needs a
"Mom, thanks. You go ahead and eat, but I've got too much
to do. We still have to decorate." The Merc, formally known
as the Glacier Mercantile, backed on to a small courtyard.
Our next–door neighbor, Red's Bar, sported a larger
courtyard. Tonight, we were throwing open the gate between
the two and hosting the kickoff dinner for the First Annual
Jewel Bay Festa di Pasta. Tracy and I had decorated our
space that morning. But Old Ned Redaway—aka
Red—didn't want us to "doll the place up" until his
Friday burgers–and–beer lunch crowd had cleared
the door. Which meant ignoring my gurgling tummy until every
table was set and the last lights strung.
Meanwhile, we had a store to spiff up. For the next hour,
we filled shelves and displays with goods our vendors and
producers had delivered, and worked with the smattering of
midday customers. I helped my mother—Francesca, aka
Fresca—refill the coolers and shelves that held our
signature products and biggest sellers: her handmade pastas,
both fresh and dried, and a dozen varieties of sauce and
pesto. That done, she restocked wine from Monte Verde
Vineyard: Chardonnay, a red blend, and cherry wine with the
peppery vibrance of a young pinot noir. She cradled a bottle
of prize–winning Viognier, admiring the label my
sister had designed.
I paused to read over my mother's shoulder. "Looks great,
doesn't it? Chiara turned Jennifer's scribbles into a brand
with a simple, attractive message."
"Yes," she said. "It says ‘drink me.'"
I laughed and kissed her cheek. Working
with—for—my mother wasn't always easy, but we
were still the Murphy girls.
On the surface, the Merc looked like any other specialty
food shop. In reality, we were more like a co–op, with
nearly two dozen regional growers and producers consigning
their food and drink for sale in a single space. I wanted to
prove that even a small mountain town with long winters and
a short growing season could do a lot to feed itself, while
sharing local bounty with our thousands of summer visitors.
In the two months since I'd been back in town, we'd
redefined our goals and realigned our product mix. The
Festa—a village–wide event I'd conceived to
celebrate the start of summer—was the big test. After
all, we called ourselves The Food Lovers' Village.
I helped Tracy unpack cartons of jams and jellies, lining
them up on the shelves and in the open drawers of an antique
Hoosier cabinet: cherry, strawberry, black cap, wild
chokecherry. And the crème de la crème, the King, the Queen,
the Champion of jams, wild Montana huckleberry.
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