Move over, Goldy Schultz and your sisters—there's a new cook in the culinary mystery kitchen. Hayley Snow grew up in New Jersey with a mother who was a terrific and inventive cook, and Hayley herself likes to cook. So when the boyfriend she followed to Key West, Chad, dumps her in favor of a former flame and she's left desperate for a job, what better choice than to apply for the opening for a food critic at Key West Zest magazine. One small problem: her ex's new girlfriend, Kristen, owns the magazine, and bitterness runs deep and wide on both sides. Lucy Burdette's debut novel, An Appetite for Murder, establishes both Hayley's current situation and her personality. She lives on a houseboat with her former college roommate, drives around town on a scooter, and is determined not to go back to New Jersey, in spite of Mom's pleas.
But when Kristen is found murdered, everything points to Hayley who has motive aplenty, and she must spend her time trying to prove her innocence instead of writing sample restaurant reviews. Every time she sits down to write, something distracts her whether it's a clue she's thought of or the police. And it doesn't help that she finds herself attracted to Detective Nate Bransford, to the point that she too often opens her mouth when she should keep it shut. Hayley sometimes comes across as a bit of a ditz.
No spoilers here except to say that Hayley lands the job in this first novel, and the second, Death in Four Courses, finds her struggling to hold on to it. Kristen's sister, who now owns controlling stock in the magazine, is determined to get rid of her.
When the annual Key West Literary Conference is devoted to food writing, Hayley is in heaven—and on probation. She's splurged and invited her mom to fly down for the conference, but now she's wondering if that's a good idea. Mom turns out to be a little bit wacky but generally quite full of good sense and concern for her daughter. Instead of the prickly mother/daughter relationship we might expect, we see two women who enjoy each other's company. True, Mom's enthusiasm occasionally embarrasses Hayley, and Mom is a wee bit critical of Hayley's style of dress, but the relationship is a refreshing change from the stereotype.
Murder strikes right away when Hayley finds the body of the flamboyant and charismatic keynote speaker, Jonah Barrows, floating in a pond during the opening reception following his speech. And coincidence becomes too much for Detective Bransford when Hayley and her mom find the body of cookbook author Yoshe King's on the rocks beneath her third-floor B&B room. Once again, Hayley is too busy clearing herself, her mom, and her best friend Eric of murder to write the sterling reviews she must to save her job. The mystery of the two deaths is a tangled story, and Mom's role in it will surprise you.
This series speaks to me because I love food writing, and a foodie conference would be Nirvana to me. Both books have great recipes in the back, not always typical Key West food like conch fritters. There's Stepmom's Meat Loaf, Screw the Roux Stew, Hayley's Leaning Tower of Eggplant, and a scrumptious fudge pie among others. Author Lucy Burdette lives in Key West part of the time, knows the island, its landmarks, tourist attractions, geography and food. She is also frank about tourists, the homeless (Key West has a disproportionate number apparently), and the privileged—it's a multi-layered society, and while the island reeks with history, it can be an expensive place to live. Reading these books transported me to Key West and left me with a lingering hesitancy to leave.
In the first book, I found Hayley a little too scattered and sometimes wanted to shake her and tell her to take control of her life, quit blabbing when nervous—and apply herself to that writing instead of procrastinating. By the second book, Hayley has settled into her role more, though we rarely see her at her computer and we agonize with her over looming deadlines. Then magically she turns in that stunning article. Would that it were that way in real life. Still Hayley and the series show growth, and I'm eagerly looking forward to Topped Chef, next up in the Hayley Snow series.
Clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, aka Lucy Burdette, has had eight previous mysteries published. Her books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and McCavity awards. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and blogs with seven other mystery writers at Jungle Red Writers.
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