Amateur Sleuths Running Family Businesses, and Villages Within Cities with Leslie Budewitz

Would you own and run a business with your family?

As Montana mystery author Leslie Budewitz points out in today’s lively interview, not everyone could embrace such a challenge. But her amateur sleuth, Erin Murphy, does just that in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries.

Leslie also has a second series of cozy mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and we have a great chat about the ‘village within a city’ setting that the market provides for spice shop owner, Pepper Reece.

If you live in Montana or Seattle, you can meet Leslie this month. She’s doing a book tour supporting the release of her latest book, Treble at the Jam Fest. I’ve put a link below to the page on her website with all the details on where she’ll be speaking and signing books.

You can find out more about today’s guest, Leslie Budewitz, and all her books on her website LeslieBudewitz.com. You can also find her on Twitter @LeslieBudewitz.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Leslie’s books on Amazon

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Leslie Budewitz

Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is It’s a Mystery Podcast and I’m here today with Leslie Budewitz. I just realized, Leslie, I didn’t ask you how to pronounce your last name.

Leslie: You know, my father had three brothers and they all said it differently. So I accept variations, but you got it just right.

Alexandra: Oh, good. Okay, that’s great. Well, welcome to the show and Leslie…

Leslie: Thanks for having me.

Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. Let me give our listeners a little bit of an introduction to you.

Leslie BudewitzLeslie Budewitz writes two cozy mystery series, the “Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries,” set in Jewel Bay, Montana and the “Spice Shop Mystery,” set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. She’s a two-time winner of the Agatha Award, in 2013 for best first novel and in 2011 for best nonfiction for her guide for writers, “Books, Crooks, and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure.”

She’s a practicing lawyer which fascinates me, the immediate past president of Sisters in Crime and the Montana representative to the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

Leslie lives in northwest Montana with her husband, Don Beans, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their greyx tuxedo cat who is an avid bird watcher. “Treble At The Jam Fest” which is her latest book and it’s the fourth one in the “Food Lovers’ Village Mystery” series is being published this month, June 2017 by Midnight Ink.

This show will go live slightly after that publication, so we’ll make sure to put a link into the show notes about that show. So let’s talk maybe first, Leslie, about the “Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries.” I’m fascinated by these and about the old mercantile store that your character, Erin has sort of refurbished and turned into a bit more of a contemporary shop.

Why don’t you tell us a bit about Erin and about the mercantile.

Leslie: You bet. The “Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries” are set in a town I called Jewel Bay, Montana. It is a lakeside resort community on the road to Glacier National Park. It bears a strong resemblance to a small community that I live outside of and have for, oh, about 17 years. But it’s also got accents of other Montana community.

It’s quite a surprising place, people drive over the mountain pass south of here and up the lake shore and they don’t expect to find the little town that sits at the base of the lake. They expect sort of a dusty western town I think and instead they find a place with fantastic art and food, and music on a gorgeous mountain lake with mountains behind, fabulous river rafting, hiking trails, golfing even.

So that’s the community that I borrowed and I gave it a new nickname as a Food Lovers’ Village because I’m sort of obsessed with food myself. It’s not really too much of a stretch although I will confess that few people have told me that there are some restaurants on the page that they would really like to visit in person. In particular, the bakery. I think it’s probably a good thing that we don’t actually have that bakery because, you know, there are no calories on the page.

Alexandra: That’s right. Yes, exactly.

Leslie: So you asked about the festival and…

Alexandra: About Erin and the mercantile.

Leslie: About Erin. I’m sorry.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Leslie: I forget Erin. Erin Murphy is half Italian as you can tell by her name. She grew up in Jewel Bay and moved away to Seattle for a number of years. That’s a common story here in the small towns of Montana and it is my story as well. I also moved to Seattle for college and then after law school, worked there for several years, and then came home.

As I say, it’s a common story and I enjoyed exploring it through the lens of a woman who is or shall we say just quite a bit younger than I am. She’s 32 when the series starts, she’s 33 in “Treble.” And this idea of coming home is a very important one throughout the series, especially in the first three books, which while each of them stands alone also share a common mystery that runs through the three books. It’s the murder or the death I should say of Erin’s father when she was a senior in high school that remains unsolved when the series starts.

Now it’s kind of a story arc that runs through the first three. But this idea of coming home and thinking that the place and discovering that it has changed while you were away appealed to me. The flip side of that is that people think they know Erin because they’ve known her family since 1910 and well, their ancestors knew, her ancestors.

But she moved away and she changed too by golly and so we’ve got this town and this woman who are rediscovering each other at the same time. Erin spent her career in Seattle in the grocery business, in my version of Costco. And so she’s dealt with these big groceries. She comes back and deals with a very small grocery.

You asked about the mercantile. Her great, probably her double great grandfather founded it in 1910 when the community was founded. And I envision it as an old sandstone building right in the heart of the village. The place where I picture it does not actually have a building on it, right now it’s an open courtyard.

So that seemed like a perfect place to put the mercantile. People do often ask me if there is a real mercantile and there is on the other end of the three-block long street. It is now a sculptor’s studio and show room, but the building had changed a little bit. So I didn’t wanna use exactly that building, but I take pieces of it, pieces of groceries I remember visiting in small towns when I was small and just kind of mash them all together.

I will say that the artist who did the covers, when he created the cover of “Death al Dente,” I had not given him any pictures of any grocery buildings and he came up with exactly what I had in mind. The ability of the visual artist to take a scene and enhance it is just astonishing and it’s just been such a joy to see the covers and to see what the artist has come up with.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s lovely and they’re absolutely beautiful covers too I have to say. He’s done an amazing job.

Leslie: They really have a lot of life too, don’t they?

Alexandra: They really do. Yeah, just beautiful. And you mentioned the town.

I noticed a really unique thing on your website is that you have a little hand drawn map of Jewel Bay so people can go and see that and see how the streets are laid out and where everything is.

Leslie: I always enjoy maps in the front flyleaves of books. And this series started as a small-sized mass market paperback original which can’t really squeeze the map in there. So I just created my own and put them up on the website. They probably need some updating since additional businesses have crept into the pictures so to speak.

Alexandra: You mentioned Erin and the way that she moved away and now has come back. I love the idea that there’s this arching story line with the death of her father throughout the first three books.

Can you tell us a bit more about her flaws and her challenges?

Leslie: Good question. One of her challenges is that she deals daily with her mother. And her mother, Francesca, known as Fresca, is a lovely woman and Erin enjoys her tremendously. But it’s not hard for anyone who has a mother to imagine that being in the family business can sometimes be a little tricky.

I remember that my father, long before I was born, had worked in a used furniture store with his father. And years later, if people mentioned being in a family business or asked him why he wasn’t in business with his father or brothers who also sold furniture as he did, he would just smile and say, “Have you ever worked with your father?”

That told me everything I needed to know. Plus in my years as a lawyer, I have gotten to observe a lot of people in their family businesses and I can see that there are tremendous advantages, tremendous pleasures, tremendous heritages, and tremendous conflicts, or at least the potential for them.

So I wanted to explore that. That’s kind of a conflict, an ongoing one for Erin. And yet, she and her mother really do love and respect each other. But her mother doesn’t have much of a head for business, she has a head for food. And so, she created this food-focused business and then really didn’t know what to do with it.

And occasionally, she will resent a little bit or perhaps I should say, resist some of the changes that Erin is making because things have always been that way. And then she sees that it is succeeding. But yet sometimes, it’s a little hard for her to give up that control.

Like most amateur sleuths, Erin has a lot on her plate and sometimes she puts a little too much on it and that creates some tensions for her and for her staff as well if she’s not in the shop. It’s always a challenge when you set up a mystery in a business and then your amateur sleuth has to go out of the business to solve crimes, but yet, you want to keep them in the business too and that’s a balancing act.

Alexandra: Absolutely it is. I have an amateur sleuth who’s a teacher and I’m always having to find ways to o get her out of the classroom; she let’s the children go early or stuff like that.

Leslie: A lot of things would happen after hours for her I’m sure.

Alexandra: Right. Exactly. And you mentioned change. That actually was one of the questions I wanted to talk to you about because I wondered how much resistance there might be from the locals to the contemporization of the mercantile.

They’ve been around for, as you mentioned, over 100 years, that store and that building.

Erin really seems to have turned it into quite a contemporary going concern with the focus on food. Is it high-end food that she’s selling?

Leslie: That is a tension that she deals with. That’s particularly part of the story in “Death al Dente,” the first book. And it comes out a little bit in “Crime Rib” the second as well.

She meets a fellow she might be interested in who really… and who is interested in her too. But he sees her as just selling high-end Huckleberry chocolates and fancy Montana products.

He really challenges her to be a local grocer going beyond the gift things to actually provide locally raised products which with our climate is somewhat of a challenge too. So that’s something that I keep going for her throughout the series. She’s always finding new vendors and trying to find new products and be the town’s grocery as well as a place for visitors.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. So then, tell us a little bit about the latest book, “Treble at the Jam Fest“.

Leslie: Well, as I said each book… as I think I said, each book involves a festival and there’s recipes in the back to let the reader recreate the festival food.

This is a jazz festival and I was influenced by my experience attending the local guitar festival concerts and our guitar festival is also a workshop. And so, in the daytime, there will be workshops in various styles of guitar and then in the evening, there are concerts.

I took that and moved it earlier in the summer, rescheduled it, and created it as a jazz festival. And so we’ve got a mix of locals and visitors.

With a series, you’ve always got to figure out where does the crime arise, does it arise from tensions between the locals or between visitors or between the visitors and locals? How do those things erupt into a conflict that will unfortunately result in someone’s demise, but that’s really just an excuse just to tell a story.

You sometimes hear the phrase “Cabot Cove Syndrome” referring to the famous TV show, “Murder, She Wrote” with the character Jessica Fletcher, so wonderfully played by Angela Lansbury. And it’s a challenge; how often does a crime actually occur in this small town?

You’ve got to juggle the ways that that happens and the festival helps. In this book, the body of an internationally renowned guitarist is found on the riverbanks outside of town. In fact, it’s found by Erin’s boyfriend and his visiting buddy. And Erin investigates to help protect the community and to keep the music playing.

Alexandra: That’s such a great kind of a summation of her motivation. That’s fantastic.

Let’s then switch gears a little bit and talk about the “Spice Shop Mysteries.” These are set in Pike Place Market in Seattle which I read on your website, you’re very familiar with from your university days.

Tell us a little bit about Pepper Reece who is the protagonist in those books.

Leslie: Pepper is in her early 40s, she is the poster child for the cliché that life begins at 40. She was happily married, she thought and happily ensconced, she thought as the staff manager for human resources in a large Seattle law firm.

Then she stumbled over her husband, a Seattle police department officer and a meter maid. She can’t bring herself to say, parking enforcement officer practically plugging each other’s meters. And so the next day, she left him and bought a loft in downtown Seattle. And we don’t deal with the realities of real estate and what houses cost in cozy world.

Alexandra: No.

Leslie: Then shortly after that, the law firm imploded in scandal and she lost the job that she loved. So she bought a spice shop naturally, wouldn’t you?

Alexandra: Yes, of course.

Leslie: She never expected to find solace in bay leaves, but it turns out to have been the best career move she ever could have made. She just loves working in the market.

I never worked in the market, but I’ve certainly have roamed the streets and alleyways many many many hours, first when I was a college student and then later as a young lawyer working downtown. I ate my way through the market at every chance and I in fact did much of my grocery shopping in the market too.

Whenever I go back to Seattle and in fact I’ll be there next week, I go to the market and I roam and see what’s new, see what catches my eye. There are a number of merchants who have been very generous with their time and their stories. In particular, the owner of one of the spice shops, World Spice Merchants down on Western Avenue and a photographer who’s got a shop there, and a few other people, an espresso shop manager who actually grew up in the market as a small child when her parents had a shop there.

Alexandra: Oh, wow.

Leslie: So they’ve been very generous in telling me their story. And in fact, that’s where the ghost angle in the first book came from, from the stories that the espresso shop owner told me.

Alexandra: So there’s a bit of a paranormal aspect to the books?

Leslie: Just the tiniest bit really. I almost hesitate to say that because I know that there are people who get turned off by that element. But it’s really more of a historical and an architectural element in a salt and pepper than it is anything woo-woo.

Alexandra: Why did pepper choose a spice shop? Is she interested in cooking herself?

Leslie: She too loves to cook. Gosh, what is the price, both my protagonist work in retail and love to cook. I worked in retail as a teenager, a teenage book seller and I love to cook and I specially love to eat, so that was sort of a natural combination.

I wanted her to have a shop in the market because when I decided to write a second series, I wanted a contrast. I’ve got the “Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries” which are set in a fairly common setting for this style of book, a small town, even though the Montana setting is a place that’s kind of unusual.

The flip side of that is the urban cozy, there aren’t a lot of them. But I thought that the market, because it is literally a city within a city, would make a great setting. For an urban cozy, I think that’s what you need, that community within the larger city.

Some of the examples are Cleo Coyle’s “Coffeehouse Mystery Series” set in Greenwich Village in New York which is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. And yet she makes this coffee shop and the coffee business the central theme of the story as well as the heart of it. And that was what I had in mind and used the market as something similar to that.

Why a spice shop? Well, it might have been that when I first started going to the market as an 18-year-old, I would walk in on Pike street and I would get a slice of pizza from DeLaurenti’s Italian Market, and I would stand in front of a newsstand, hands off of course until I finish my pizza and stare at the magazines and occasionally take one or two home.

Then I would walk down the aisle a little ways to the corner where the spice shop is, Seattle, the market spice shop. And I would get a sample cup of their tea and I would start to learn about the herbs and spices that way. And eventually, when I started learning to cook, when I actually had an apartment and a kitchen, that was where I went.

So to me, that’s been the heart of the market. I moved to the spice shop, I changed the name, I changed the layout and all of that. You have to do that if you wanna kill people.

Alexandra: When you started writing the “Spice Shop” series and the other one as well too, did you envision them both as a series right from the beginning?

Leslie: I did because both of them were sold to Berkley Prime Crime, a division of Penguin Random House on a three-book contract. So I knew that there would be at least three books in the series.

And in fact, that’s why the “Food Lovers’ Village” started with the three-book story line. As I said, each book has its own murder and mystery, but that mystery that goes through the three, I knew I would have the freedom to be able to explore that because of the contract.

Alexandra: What would you say the differences or similarities are between Pepper and Erin?

Leslie: You know, it’s really fun to discover that as you create these characters, they take on their own lives and they have their own experiences. And so, if you make some deliberate choices, then these women just go off on their own in different directions.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t at all that smart to do two food related series that are both told in first person and yet that is for me the easiest way to get into a character.

Pepper is 10 years older than Erin. Erin left Montana and came back. She’s single and looking, and she works with her mother and the rest of her family is close by. Pepper has always lived in Seattle and she doesn’t have the large extended family that Erin has, but she does have her girlfriends who meet every week or so for movie night, what they call “flick chicks.”

Pepper is a little sassier in some ways, she is a little sharper-edged. She’s divorced and so that gives her a little bit of a different perspective. She’s not sure if she’s looking. And so that gives me a chance to play with a different element.

Alexandra: Right. And at slightly different ages, you said that Pepper is in her early 40s, is that right?

Leslie: Yes. And Erin is 32. So those are really different times in a woman’s life.

Alexandra: Yes, they are. Absolutely.

You pointed out Pepper’s divorce would have had an effect on her personality. And Erin, I’m assuming, has not been married.

Leslie: She hasn’t. One of the things that also comes into play for Pepper is that her husband is a Seattle bike patrol officer and his beat includes the market. So she sees him regularly. And darn it, that man doesn’t look awfully good in bike shorts.

Alexandra: Oh, dear. That’s a shame. And I should point out too, I noticed on your website, you’ve got a list, a reading list of Pepper’s on the blog.

Leslie: Yes, yes. Pepper discovers mysteries. She finds a box in her storage locker that her mother left her. Her mother still is living, but her parents have moved to Costa Rica. And so this box is in Pepper’s storage space and she finds a treasure trove of Brother Cadfael books and she starts reading those.

Also it turns out that one of her former employees now works in the mystery bookshop. And so in her own shop, she sells books, cookbooks and food-related fiction. And so she’s got some of my favorites and so I put a list up on my blog.

Alexandra: Nice. Well, I’ll make sure to put a link to that in the show notes so people can go and find that. I don’t think I’ve never been in a spice shop. But now, you’ve made me wanna check one out.

I used to live in Vancouver and we similarly too, Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Vancouver has Granville Island with the same kind of idea of a self-contained place, lots of merchants, lots of different shops and food, and restaurants, and all that kind of things. And I’ve been to Seattle’s Pike Place, it’s gorgeous. It’s a really nice place to be.

Leslie: It’s a lot of fun. You know, it too has changed over the years because we now have Farmers’ Markets in the suburbs and in various communities throughout the city and grocery stores have things that they didn’t use to have. And so the market has had to reinvent itself a little bit. And that changes the experience of the market too.

Alexandra: True. Yeah. Absolutely.

Leslie: But it’s still fun.

Alexandra: Yes, they are still fun. I noticed we’re just coming up on the end of our time together. I wanted to mention again that your latest book, “Treble At The Jam Festival” is out now. It will be out by the time the show is live.

What are you working on at the moment?

Leslie: I have just turned in the fifth book in the “Food Lovers’ Village” series, I won’t even mention the title because I know that the working title is going to change. I hope that the working title is going to change, titles are tricky.

It is set at Christmas in the village which is a very fun time around here.

I’m also working on something entirely different, a standalone suspense novel set in Billings, Montana which is where I grew up in the south central part of the state from 1973 to the present involving two women whose paths crossed briefly many years ago and who are now connected by a mystery that they had not expected.

Alexandra: Oh, interesting. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for that for sure.

Leslie: Fingers crossed that it finds a home.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, exactly. Well, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate it.

Why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about your books, Leslie?

Leslie: You bet. The best place is my website which is lesliebudewitz.com and that’s B-U-D-E-W-I-T-Z. If you just search for Lovers’ Village, you’ll probably find me. And there are the book covers and short excerpts along with endorsements and some of the recipes, and as you said, Alexandra, the maps and a few other fun things on the website.

You can also find me on Facebook as Leslie Budewitz Author. The books are available in paperback, the first three in mass market, and the new one in trade paperback and in e-books in all format. And they have just begun to come out an audio book. The third one will be out this month, next week, and “Treble” I think next month, so one among through the spring and released.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s always nice to have that option for readers.

Leslie: I love having audio books. And so, they’re available through all the usual online and physical book sellers as well as library.

Alexandra: And why don’t you let us know about the event that you’re doing in August. I think it’s a festival in Montana.

Leslie: Yes, here in village of Bigfork for nearly 40 years, we’ve had an arts festival that takes over the village street on the first weekend in August and I will check the date. It is August 5th and 6th, Saturday and Sunday in the heart of the village of the Bigfork. And it’s just a wonderful time to meet more than 150 artist and craftspeople, and some food vendors as well. And I will be there with all the books from both series. In fact, if you wanna get a preview of the festival, read “Crime Rib” which is the second book in the series. It takes places at the festival, although I’ve added a steak grill off to it as well.

Alexandra: Oh, great, good. I’ll make sure to put a link to that as well in the show notes so people can check it out if they want to.

Leslie: Great.

Alexandra: That’s August 5th and 6th, 2017 just for the record. Well thank you so much, Leslie. It’s been great chatting with you.

Leslie: My pleasure.

Alexandra: Take care, bye-bye.

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