Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two national best-selling series, the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, and the Spice Shop Mystery, set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The immediate past president of Sisters in Crime, she lives and cooks in NW Montana.
Her Spice Shop Mystery series is set in the Seattle Spice Shop, owned by Pepper Reece, in the vibrant Pike Place Market. We can almost smell the spices as we read descriptions of combinations put together for customers to use in different styles of cooking as well as the spices that the shop supplies to local restaurants. The situations Pepper gets into lead her to investigate murders on behalf of people she cares about. Both cases in the first two Spice Shop books, Assault and Pepper and Guilty as Cinnamon, take unique twists and turns that lead to creative surprises.
Your spice shop books are so vivid with sensory detail. What inspired your choosing to place your books in such a setting?
Thanks! I fell in love with the Pike Place Market as a college student in Seattle in the late 1970s, when the Market had just been saved from “urban removal” and was a lively, gritty place offering an amazing variety of food and drink, and sights and sounds. Later as a young lawyer, I ate my way through the market at least once a week, and bought groceries there. Though I moved back to Montana quite a few years ago, I still adore the Market and prowl it on every visit to Seattle.
My first series, the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, is set in fictional Jewel Bay, Montana, a lakeside resort community on the road to Glacier National Park. When I decided to start a second series, Seattle was a natural choice. I love exploring small towns in one series, and the urban “city within a city” in the second.
Your books include a quote about spices, food, or the local area as the intro to each chapter. Where do you find all your quotes?
I keep a stash! Histories, articles, cookbooks, songs; even a few friends have contributed.
You involve details of combinations of spices throughout your books. Tell me about the research involved in being able to include such details.
When you walk into the Market at the corner of First and Pike, if you head straight back, past Rachel the bronze pig and the me who throw the fish, and veer slightly to the right, you’ll find yourself in the Market Spice Shop, a tiny corner crammed with herbs, spices, teas, and accessories. And, depending on the season, an urn or a cooler filled with fresh-brewed Market Spice Tea. It was a mandatory stop on my market strolls, and the place that got me started cooking. These days, there’s a second spice shop in the Market, World Spice on Western Avenue. They are my visual resources, and the places where I shop, both live and online. Amanda Bevill, owner of World Spice, has become a friend and readily answers my questions about the spice trade.
I’ve also gathered quite a few books—cookbooks and histories—focused on spice. I adore reading recipes and menus, and creating my own spice blends. Blends are really the exciting trend these days, and I include one or two in each book, along with recipes using them. Every recipe in my books, and in my blog posts on Mystery Lovers Kitchen, www.MysteryLoversKitchen.com, is much tested in my own home kitchen. Not everyone can find spices easily, so I aim for to balance introducing new finds with fun uses for familiar flavors.
Pepper, your main character, loves to cook. One question she asks in each job interview is what they like to cook. So let me ask the same question of you. What are your favorite things to cook?
Oh, what a great question! Mr. Right cooks most of the meat and fish, leaving the fun stuff for me. While my mother wasn’t much of a cook, she was an excellent baker, and taught me to make cookies and pies. I love baking muffins or scones on Sunday mornings, as part of our quiet-at-home ritual. Discovering new taste combos or variations on the standards is a lot of fun—an example from Treble at the Jam Fest , my newest book, is Grilled Caprese Kabobs. Caprese salad on a stick, made even more delicious with a drizzle of blackberry balsamic vinegar. Another, from Killing Thyme, the latest Spice Shop Mystery (October 2016), is the Lemon Thyme Shortbread Cookies, putting a savory herb in a sweet treat. Delish!
I love cooking with fresh ingredients, and recreating dishes we’ve had out and about—like seared scallops served on polenta with a tomato roulade and fresh basil. Last night, I whipped up a jar of chocolate-Cabernet sauce, featured in Butter Off Dead, the third Food Lovers’ Village Mystery, and we spooned it over ice cream while it was still warm. So I suppose the real answer is that my favorite thing to cook is something that makes people happy.
What inspired you to want to become a writer, in particular a mystery writer?
I started writing at four, on my father’s desk. Literally—I didn’t yet understand the concept of paper. It’s always been something I wanted to do, but I didn’t realize you actually could. As with many artists, the creative urge pushed to the fore during a difficult period of my life, and I knew that denying it would be a big mistake.
I’ve always loved reading mysteries, starting with the Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew. I suspect fiction came out in the form of mystery because when I started writing seriously, I’d been driving a lot and listening to books on tape—they really were on tape then—from a library that had a lot of mystery, such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters, Tony Hillerman. From Hillerman I learned that mystery could be set anywhere, so why not here in western Montana?
Do you still practice law? What kind of law did you practice, and how did you go from being a lawyer to writing fiction? How has your experience as a lawyer affected your writing? I find it interesting that at least in your first two books in the Spice Shop series, you don’t actually have any lawyers!
Over thirty years, my practice has largely been civil litigation—personal injury and business disputes, with a dash of criminal law and a fair amount of employment law. These days, I work part-time for another lawyer, primarily doing research and writing. Though I’m grateful for my legal education and career, killing people on the page is a lot more fun!
My experience helps me understand what happens in police investigations, and the emotions victims, witnesses, and even professionals experience. That’s why we read, isn’t it, to understand other people’s experiences and learn more about this crazy business of life? That’s certainly why I write.
Sharp eyes to notice the lack of lawyers in the Spice Shop Mysteries. That was deliberate. Pepper managed staff HR for a huge Seattle law firm that imploded in scandal. That actually did happen, a few years after I left Seattle. I knew the lawyers would land on their feet—it was the staff who worried me. That’s why Pepper often calls on her former staffers for help—those women know where all the bodies are buried! But her BFF Kristen’s husband is a lawyer, and a lawyer she used to work with figures in the third book, Killing Thyme.
What books did you grow up loving? What do you love to read now?
I got a college degree for reading books, and now make a living writing them. What fun is that? I read widely—my interests are broad, and I love learning from all kinds of fiction, and some nonfiction. In the world of crime fiction, I’m a big fan of Louise Penny, Margaret Maron, Barbara Ross’s Maine Clam Mysteries, and Deborah Crombie. The stand-alones from Laura Lippman and Catriona McPherson knock my socks off—literally. See my toes? And watch Lori Rader-Day—a major new talent, diving deeply into the lives of women and girls.
You’re newest book just came out. What is that about?
Treble are the Jam Fest is the 4th Food Lovers’ Village mystery, and it’s a delight to return to the village of Jewel Bay, Montana, a lakeside resort community on the road to Glacier National Park. It’s late May, and Erin has her hands full getting the Merc ready for summer, hiring a new sales clerk, and meeting her boyfriend Adam’s visiting BFF. It’s also time for the annual Jewel Bay Jazz Festival. When Adam and his buddy find the body of an internationally-renowned guitarist on the river bank near town, Erin investigates to protect the community and keep the music playing.
In real life, my town hosts an annual guitar workshop and festival in late August. My husband often attends as a student, and we go to every concert. I wanted to take a bit of that energy, and the occasional conflict, and expand and explore it on the page. My books always include a lot of food and the recipes to recreate the food from the festival at home, so creating and testing the recipes is always a lot of fun.
What kind of research do you have to do for your writing, and where do you find it?
Besides eating? Fiction does require research, which surprises some readers. I check out police procedure, consult maps, read the Seattle paper, magazines, and blogs, and often send my own BFF scouring for some real-life detail or another. Mr. Right and I walk like crazy when we visit Seattle, taking it all in, then capping it off with a great meal.
Reading, writing, eating, and telling stories—what could be better?
Leslie will also be contributing a CD copy of her first Food Lovers Village Mystery Series book to help us celebrate Audiobook Month!
More about Treble at Jam Fest, including an excerpt here:
Click here to read my review of Assault and Pepper
Click here to read my review of Guilty as Cinnamon