Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe’s Ongoing series “Cozy Crime Spree”, a name I came up with literally 10 seconds ago, and like so much I’m going to retroactively change things so that I can act as if I came up with it weeks ago. Just like a real mystery writer!
If you didn’t read our First part, and have little interest in doing so, let me briefly summarize it, as cozies so often do their protagonist’s previous escapades: famed author James Patterson wrote a book that inches into the world of Cozies, a genre of mystery novel that’s been slowly building over the last 20-30 years. However, his work is so divorced from the standard conventions and tone of the genre that it filled me with rage, and I…reacted harshly. As such, I am now on the run from the law, and that’s why we’re having this conversation while sitting in a late-night diner, with me slouching low in my seat with a hood over my head, in a common “this will make me inconspicuous” look that automatically makes me look much more suspicious.
Nothing to see here, not-all-all-criminal-looking guy.
Now, of course, I’m a mostly reasonable man. I wouldn’t use a federal felony to express my distaste for a work of fiction without EVIDENCE of that work’s flaws. Which is why I ALSO brought this dirty manila envelope, whose contents I will haphazardly dump on our diner table, to use as evidence. I don’t have much time, between the constant threat of the manhunt, and this being a post that shouldn’t go much beyond 2,000 words, so let me briefly dissect a couple Cozies for you, to give you an idea of what exactly went wrong.
I’m no cozy connoisseur (a word I NEVER spell correctly on the first damn try, so I don’t know why I decided to write about food) but I do live with one, and have read a couple in my time. Thus, I’m going to tear apart two cozies, and Patterson’s novel, and I think you’ll see some vivid differences. So…spoilers for all three of these novels: Stabbed in the Baklava by Tina Kashian, Chocolate Quake by Nancy Fairbanks, and The Chef by James Patterson and Max DiLallo.
Stabbed in the Baklava
Firstly, let’s note that Patterson’s piece doesn’t even use a food pun for a title, so is it REALLY even trying? Moving on.
Stabbed in the Baklava is the second in the Kebab Kitchen series, a series about Lucy Berberian, a former patent lawyer who has taken over her family’s restaurant to help ease her family into retirement. Her head chef is her, as far as the novel tells me, ONLY ex-boyfriend, and the novel establishes the “will-they-won’t-they” thing pretty early on. But trouble arises when catering a wedding for a wealthy socialite, and the best man is revealed to have denied the head chef a loan that prevented him from buying the restaurant before she took over. Trouble that gets DOUBLED when the best man is found dead in their catering van, a shish kabob skewer stabbed in his neck.
The next FORTY PAGES are various people telling Lucy to investigate, or not to investigate, or reminding her of what happened last time, before she decides to start digging. This book is less than 300 pages, and we don’t START investigating until page 80. We meet the various charming residents of the town she lives in, all of whom love her family’s cooking, and are constantly giving her little free things because her mother gave THEM free things the last time they were at the restaurant. She teams up with her best friend since grade school, and promptly starts digging.
Could it have been the terrible bitch of a wedding planner introduced as a pain in the ass and constantly screaming at people in the first 30 pages? Or is it the groom, who turns out to have been covering for his best man’s gambling addiction screwing over the groom’s finances and his new wife’s planned product launch? Is it the wife of the deceased who had recently gotten a life insurance policy for him, just before she discovered he was having an affair with a much younger woman? Or the younger woman he was having the affair with, who is lying about her past, living well beyond her means, and to whom the man had just recently changed his life insurance policy to pay TO?
Rule 1 of mystery writing: everyone has a motive. Or at least LOOKS like they have a motive.
Because the only rude people in this entire story are either connected to the bridal party, or are the biased detective running the case, who hates Lucy’s family because her sister cheated on him in high school, and gave him an unflattering nickname that stuck. Meanwhile, Lucy is constantly torn between her ex (who clearly still has feelings for her, and for whom she still has feelings, but she’s afraid because he broke her heart when they were teens) and the sexy motorcycle-riding bicycle salesman (no, really) from across the street, who shares her understanding of overbearing parents, working in a family business, and with whom she doesn’t have a complicated relationship.
If you WANT to know the answer, it was the wedding planner. Which mildly surprised me, because she was so obviously the killer in the first 60 pages that I said “okay, this has to be a red herring.” Turns out the guy’s ‘affair’ was actually a child from a PREVIOUS affair, and the two had been building their relationship. The life insurance was a way to try and make amends, and he didn’t tell his wife because he didn’t want to hurt her (her infertility had been a great distress for them). Hilariously, he was ALSO STILL HAVING AN AFFAIR, with the wedding planner, who was furious that he was “replacing” her, after all she had sacrificed to stay with him.
So, plucky young lawyer/restaurateur uses pluck and town gossip to exonerate one of the legs of her love triangle, and save her parent’s restaurant. Easy enough.
The greatest sin of this story is the lack of tuxedo’ed Sea Lions.
Which the story makes clear ARE Sea Lions, not Seals. Very particular.
Carolyn Blue is a housewife-turned-food-columnist, and as this is the FOURTH book of her solving crimes in her off-time, we have to assume something of an old hat at this. She arrives in San Francisco on a trip with her husband, a chemist, to attend a convention. The intent is for her to eat at some San Francisco restaurants, write up some recipes, visit her husband’s mother who lives in town. Unfortunately, these plans go awry when they get to their hotel, and she calls her mother-in-law, to discover she’s been arrested for murder! The noted feminist lecturer was found covered in blood, holding a knife, over the body of an accountant who worked at her woman’s shelter and enrichment center. She was obviously guilty, and thus the case was closed.
Except of course not, the mother-in-law simply FOUND the secretary dying, attempted to give her first aid, leaving her in this incriminating state. Carolyn is told in no uncertain terms not to investigate by her mother-in-law, so she does so, because her mother-in-law misjudged her dress size for her birthday. I am not joking about that. It is a point of dissatisfaction noted on page THREE of the story.
That’s a digital underline. I didn’t mark up a book to make a point.
And sure, I get the complaint is fairly relatable. I’m a big dude, and I still get a little tetchy if you misjudge my size, but this thing is brought up several times over the course of the story.
With the “help” of her mother-in-law’s amorous Italian stereotype of a neighbor who sings Opera music every day and refuses to accept no for an answer, and later the ACTUAL help of a private investigator, Carolyn attempts to unravel who could have wanted the secretary dead, despite the dismissal of her mother-in-law, the disinterest of her husband, and a fear of earthquakes.
Notable for having multiple POV characters: while most of the novel is from Carolyn’s perspective, a small bit of it is devoted to her husband’s perspective in order to show exactly how little awareness the man has about his wife’s motives and day-to-day activities, and a fair portion of it is from the POV of Sam, the gay former-pro-football-player with a degree in geology who her husband hires as a private eye. I did not make up ANY of that description.
Could it have been one of the many, MANY people her fiercely opinionated feminist of a mother-in-law pissed off? One of the opinionated members of the shelter, angry with the accountant for denying them funding? A local land developer who’s businesses the women’s shelter is protesting? An abusive husband of one of the sheltered women, driven to rage at their refusal to let him continue beating his wife? The FORMER secretary of the women’s shelter, who is currently battling breast cancer, attempting to cover up some strange financial discrepancies that only came to light right when the new girl took over?
It’s an ugly word, but hey, someone’s gotta say it.
Surprise, it’s none of them, but rather the boyfriend of the cancer-ridden accountant, who had been helping her ‘borrow’ money from the shelter, so they could “invest it, and then return it”. I’ve been told that Nancy Fairbanks is a ‘funny’ cozy writer, and while her jokes didn’t really land for me, I could definitely see how they could appeal to a certain subset of people: the whole case is handled not unlike, say, an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Debra takes up investigating: the husband is wrapped up in his thing, she’s constantly sniping at her mother-in-law ((indeed, EVERYONE is either sniping at or being dismissive of everyone else), meeting a bunch of different cultures she has no reference points for, and ‘acting out’ by dressing in leather or eating spicy foods.
The biggest shocks are a late-in-story attack on her and Sam, and the sheer number of little “HERE’S A FUN HISTORICAL FACT ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO TO PROVE I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.” The opening paragraph of the novel is about how French restaurants in 1906 San Francisco were basically brothels, and how a mayor got indicted for the bribes he took from them. Which I honestly didn’t mind, since, hey, mixing humor, food, and history is also my schtick, so I can’t be too mad.
Though she didn’t reference Emperor Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States, so how great could her history really be?
So you’re seeing the themes, right? Professional woman, told not to interfere, relies on gossip and people just telling them important information, not a lot of danger or gore (the guy who got skewered? It takes them 15 pages to even note there was blood in the van under him. I literally thought that was supposed to be a CLUE, it was so downplayed.), personal drama unfolding, all that jazz? Good. Because you’re going to want to keep that jazz in mind when we head down to the big easy for Patterson’s The Chef.
I don’t know if I’ve managed a SINGLE good picture of this book, and I’m starting to think it isn’t my fault.
Caleb Rooney runs a food truck by night, and is an New Orleans Police Detective by day. Or vice-versa, since we literally start the book in his truck, in the middle of the day, as he’s serving customers. Before he leaves, to go to his wrongful use of force hearing, because he shot a drug dealer a few weeks ago. THIS IS OUR STARTING POINT. We meet Caleb, he explains the components of various frequent dishes he makes in the truck, and then leaves the truck in the middle of the afternoon to go justify his use of lethal force.
He gets so pissed off at the relatively routine questions that he decides to resign, and be a food truck chef full time. This lasts for less than a week, during which time he:
Makes a scrambled egg sandwich that wows a drunk tourist
Tries to stop a mugging
gets brutally beaten by the brother of the man he shot,
and, when celebrating his release from the hospital 3 days later (which…what? ) is approached by a local restaurateur to maybe open a physical restaurant together, as partners.
Your average week in the life of a food truck owner.
This starts the next plot line, as the restaurateur (and trust me, I didn’t think I’d be writing that word as often as I have been either) turns out to have a bit of a temper, but a REALLY HOT WIFE, who flirts with Caleb, and he flirts back.
Then, one day later, his former chief contacts him, saying he needs his help. It turns out there’s going to be a TERRORIST ATTACK on New Orleans, and he needs someone off the books to investigate, because the FBI has locked down the NOPD.
Rooney does, but this means he has to keep leaving the truck, and he’s the chef of the truck, so…that’s an issue. The romance with the MARRIED WOMAN seems to be progressing well, and Rooney’s following his leads, tracking one particular guy, before he gets seen spying on a meeting and beaten. Again. The FBI show up, tell him to buzz off, that he already messed up their next sting.
Then, 138 pages into the story, our first murder occurs. And it’s…look, this is where I knew we had fully left cozy territory. The description I am about to make is gruesome, so I warn you, if you don’t want to read it, it would be best to move to the next paragraph. Okay? Okay. The dude was killed with a boring bit. Bound to a chair, his tongue blitzed out of his mouth, and then “holes the size of quarters” were bored into his body, down to the bone, for hours until he died. And that’s….look, I get the narrative purpose of the scene: until this point, the threat had technically been purely cerebral. With this snapshot, we learn that the enemy being faced is excessively cruel and monstrous. I GET that. But come on. Their stated goal is a terrorist attack. Those are by DESIGN cruel and monstrous. And yes, the body shows they’re also intelligent enough to plug holes in their framework, yada yada, but it took you 1/3rd of your book to kill someone, and I wasn’t ready for it to be worse than a scene out of SAW or Se7en.
Sure, he’s a monster, but he sure is charming!
That joke works on a couple levels now.
Things unfold from there. More dead leads, fishy business dealings, a connection to the muslim community is explored, and Caleb has to dodge shotgun blasts. He goes on a horse ride to get a reclusive millionaire’s relative and financial manager to give him intel, and hooks up with the married woman. (It’s cool, her husband is abusive, so we’re meant to support it.)
THEN, the terrorist attack IS ACTUALLY CARRIED OUT. Yes, Caleb does NOT save the day, technically. He uncovers the truth just too late, and he and the FBI and NOPD have to take out armed attackers during Mardi Gras. The death toll I believe ends up somewhere between 20 and 60, but still, that’s already half the death toll of 13 YEARS of Murder she Wrote!
TV’s most prolific murderess.
It turns out the whole thing was carried out by a local chef, whose motivation is literally “I’m so sick of all these fucking tourists ruining New Orleans, so I’m going to enact terrorism to cripple our tourism industry” which our hero discovers by taking one of the imprisoned terrorists, and photos of a child victim of the attack, and lying to the terrorist that the child in the picture is his niece, in order to psychologically torment into giving up information. Sorry, “hero” was meant to be in quotes there. That’s some 24-level shit.
And it turns out this was all a PRELUDE, because he actually intends to kill the PRESIDENT at the speech MOURNING the first attack. Which…I mean kudos for having a multiple step plan, dude. Too many killers only have step 1, and end up improvising part way through.
“Ah, shit, a LOCK? Damn, didn’t plan for this.”
Anyway, turns out the married wife is trapped because her abusive husband bought her a liver to replace hers, and since their pre-nup says he keeps all assets if they divorce, or something like that, if she leaves him, she won’t be able to afford her medication. This is all shouted at his face as a dramatic reveal to the audience, as information Caleb had days ago, but didn’t disclose to use in his inner monologue, and the husband immediately breaks down and swears to “make things right”.
Caleb barely stops the second attack, gets lauded as a hero, the gang decides to stop trying to kill him since…well, ‘stopped and/or mitigated two terror attacks’ means that shooting him will get a LOT of people REALLY MAD at you. He gets the girl, has his truck up and running, and gets handed the paperwork and the suggestion that he become a private investigator. Explicitly in case the truck (which is now even more famous and popular) becomes too hard to run.
And I just…
You see why I started the fire, right? This was like if someone tried to tell you Pan’s Labyrinth was a “Disney-esque story of a child and the mystical world that helps her face her fears” It’s a sentence that has only one wrong word in it, but HOLY FUCK IS THAT WORD WRONG.
THIS IS NOT CHILDLIKE WHIMSY AND DELIGHT.
And sure, technically, Patterson doesn’t claim his book is a cozy. He calls it a “tasty thriller”. But I mean, he wrote a mystery with recipes in it. At a certain point, you gotta look at the territory and see what others were building. . Also, and this may be an argument FOR the book, it’s written in a very strange way: see, the Chef was actually released as a Facebook Messenger chat, a fact I did not know until after reading it. once I did, it made a couple little things that had bothered me easier to understand. For one thing, the book is made of of TONS of 1-2 sentence paragraphs, and chapters are almost always 3-5 pages. Which I originally thought was because DiLallo is a screenwriter, and was making his chapters more like scene beats in a script. But apparently, it was to make it flow better in digital form. It’s not super-irritating when reading, it was just something I noticed.
But I’ve said too much already. A police black-and-white just pulled up to the diner, and I have to go. I hope I’ve convinced you there was some kind of logic to what I definitely and totally did, which isn’t at all a rhetorical/narrative device. (WINK) And maybe, if you’re looking for something nice and a little exciting to pass the time, you’ll check some cozies out. They’re just clever enough to make you worry you’re over or under-thinking, and you typically get some nice food out of it. Until we meet again, mes amis!
MONDAY: REMEMBER WHEN JON SAID HE WAS GOING TO PLAN THINGS? WHY DID YOU BELIEVE HIM? HE’S A FICTIONAL ARSONIST AND UNPREPARED DOLT. HE COULDN’T GET A FAMILY MEETING TOGETHER IF HIS FAMILY WAS LITERALLY IN THE SAME ROOM. HE KNOWS, HE’S TRIED. ANYWAY, WE’RE MAKING MISO-BUTTER SOBA NOODLES WITH ASPARAGUS. IT’S A HELL OF AN INTERESTING, AND SURPRISINGLY SIMPLE, MEAL.
THURSDAY: YEAH, IF I DIDN’T GET TO PLAN MONDAY, I SURE AS SHIT DIDN’T GET TO THIS SUCKER.