Friday, August 7, 2020

House of Desire - Whisky and Wine

Margaret Lucke flings words around as a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of four mystery novels: House of Desire, House of Whispers, Snow Angel, and A Relative Stranger (an Anthony Award finalist). She is also the editor of Fault Lines, an anthology of mystery short stories published last year by the Northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime. She has taught writing classes for more than 20 years, and she has published two how-to books on the craft of writing. Let's see what drink she's chosen to match her novel, House of Desire. 

In my new novel, House of Desire, reluctant psychic Claire Scanlan attends a gala fundraiser to save a grand San Francisco Victorian. There she encounters a mysterious young woman, Roxane, who is invisible to everyone but her. Roxane is a “soiled dove” plying her trade in the mansion in 1896. She has discovered a secret portal that lets her slip into what she calls the Future House when she needs to escape the most brutal of the men who buy her favors. 

When the party’s organizer is murdered in the mansion, Roxane is the sole witness. Terrified, she flees back to her own time. Claire’s philandering brother-in-law is accused of being the killer. To clear his name she must find the elusive Roxane—which means risking a perilous journey into the past from which she may never return.

The Burnham Mansion in the story is based very loosely on the Haas-Lilienthal House, where the preservation group San Francisco Heritage is headquartered. I had the pleasure of working on their staff a number of years ago. One of the many liberties I took was to give my house a piece of history that the real house doesn’t share. In the 1890s the fictional Burnham Mansion was a parlor house, or upscale bordello, known as Chez Celeste. 

The action in House of Desire moves back and forth between Claire’s contemporary world and Roxane’s Victorian-era environment. Among the many things that differentiate the past and present in the book are the beverages people drink. In the 21st century scenes, Claire and her cohorts are likely to choose wine—a full-bodied zinfandel or a crisp chardonnay. The gentlemen who patronize Chez Celeste will often purchase a tot of whiskey, poured from a decanter so they won’t notice that it has been watered down even though they are being charged full price.

While Chez Celeste didn’t offer cocktails, they were popular in the Victorian era. When looking for Victorian whisky recipes, I came upon this one, which Charles Dickens apparently enjoyed when he visited America. It may be the original cocktail, or at least 

the first to be called by that name.

The Cock-Tail

1 teaspoon super fine sugar or simple syrup

2 ounces of rye whiskey

3 ounces of water

4 dashes of bitters


Combine first four ingredients and stir. Top with grated nutmeg

Note: This recipe need not be limited to whiskey. The 19th-century instructions say that rum, gin, or brandy will work as well. Whatever your pleasure, I hope you enjoy your drink.


Margaret Lucke flings words around as a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of four mystery novels: House of Desire, House of Whispers, Snow Angel, and A Relative Stranger (an Anthony Award finalist). She is also the editor of Fault Lines, an anthology of mystery short stories published last year by the Northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime. She has taught writing classes for more than 20 years, and she has published two how-to books on the craft of writing.

You can find Margaret on Twitter: @margaretlucke 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Q&A with Paul D. Marks

Paul Marks joins us today to talk about his new book, The Blues Don't Care. Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn”. Betty Webb of Mystery Scene Magazine calls its sequel Broken Windows “Extraordinary”. His short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award. And “Fade-Out on Bunker Hill” came in second in the 2020 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. “Windward” was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, and won the 2018 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. He has written four novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories, including many award winners and nominees. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery MagazineHardboiled, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, and many others. He has served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. 

How is the Blues Don't Care different from your other novels?

The Blues Don’t Care is different from my other novels. First, it’s set in 1940s Los Angeles during World War II and second, it’s more expansive and goes into a lot more description of the setting. I wanted to immerse the reader in the time period—really make them feel like they’re there listening to swing music, inhaling the smoke from a cigarette and feeling the rhythm of the band playing. And I wanted to dig deep into the main character, Bobby Saxon, as I find him unique and interesting.
The character of Bobby was challenging to write in that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Bobby’s on a mission. He wants to play piano for the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor band, the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in the heart of Los Angeles. But there’s a problem: he’s young and he’s white. So if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. That’s not the only thing standing in his way. In order to get the gig he must first solve a murder that one of the band members has been accused of. And if that’s still not enough there’s another big thing standing in his way…

Where did you get the idea for THE BLUES DON'T CARE? What made you decide to tell this story in the past rather than the present?

I had previously written three short stories with the Bobby Saxon character, but they were published quite a long time ago, so I don’t think most people remember them. The general inspiration for Bobby came from a real person. But everything else about Bobby is fictional. 

One of the elements of this story was the attitude of society at that time towards people who were different from the mainstream. Bobby doesn’t fit into the society of the 1940s and by joining an all-black band he becomes an outsider among outsiders and that gives the story another layer of depth. 
I’ve always loved the 1940s era and wished I’d been born in the 20s so I could have lived then. I think the time period is fascinating and full of conflict, both in terms of the war and in terms of changes happening in society at that time. Conflict in real life maybe isn’t so good, but it’s good for writers. It’s the engine of your story. And I think telling this story in the past allows us to view things that are happening today through the prism of the past.

What was it about the music scene that called to you? Do you have a background in jazz/swing/other music yourself?

Although I’ve always loved music, I didn’t always love swing music. My dad loved it and any time we went somewhere in the car he would play it on the radio—his car his rules. I wanted to listen to rock. Later, my dad took us to see Benny Goodman, and I was bored. But I was a dumb kid.

Then something strange happened: as I got older, I started to like it. Maybe having been exposed to it as a kid gave me an appreciation for it that came back to me later on. 

Also, as an adult I started watching old movies from the 30s and 40s and the swing music in some of them started to appeal to me. My friend Linda and I would go to swing dances and concerts at various venues and even went to see many bands and singers from that era that were still around. We got to see Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sing Tangerine and Brazil. We saw Tex Beneke lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I got to see Johnny Otis, who took over as band leader of the house band at the Club Alabam, though I would have loved to have seen him there.

My musical background, at least as a player, is rock. Bass player. I was in a few bands when I was young, but knew I didn’t have the talent to do it professionally. But that didn’t stop me from trying. And, of course, I can always listen to various kinds of music.

What did you do to research THE BLUES DON'T CARE?

I love research. It’s a downfall of mine. I just like learning stuff and love history. General history and L.A. history in particular. Blues is set on the Los Angeles home front during World War II. 
I start with the usual sources, books and the internet. But also the music of the period gives you a feel for it and for what people were thinking. As do the movies. Watching movies from the time can show you how people dressed and talked, etc. Same with reading fiction written at the time. But I also had another source that was terrific: my mom and her friends, who remembered L.A. from when they were young during the war years. So I had first-hand sources to go to. And they had things to say that you normally wouldn’t find in books or other second-hand sources.

And one question I had was how to get the characters from Point A to B. Because in those days not only were there no freeways, but some of the roads were different as well. So one of the best resources I found were old 1940s maps of Los Angeles on eBay. I bought several. And I figured out how to get Bobby and his ad hoc partner Sam from L.A. to Long Beach on surface streets. Today we’d just take the freeway, but not back then. So maps are something I highly recommend as research tools.

What was the most challenging part of dealing with several controversial subjects such as race and gender?

It’s always challenging dealing with controversial issues because writers aren’t like journalists. We’re not always trying to be objective observers. We’re trying to tell a story from our characters’ points of view and we have to get inside their heads and see things the way they would have seen them. There’s always a temptation to look at things from our modern POV but if you do that you lose authenticity.

I think the main thing is that you want to be true to the time period but at the same time realize that we’re living in a different age with different sensitivities. So things that people (characters) might have said or done back then can be hurtful today. That said, I want to be true to the time and the characters, so my way of dealing with it is to put an author’s note—or what these days might be called a trigger warning—at the head of the story so people know what to expect and can decide not to buy or read the book if they think it will upset them.

If Bobby was actually a real person, would you be friends? Why or why not?

Interesting question and one I hadn’t thought of. Yes, I think we’d be friends. I enjoyed writing Bobby in all his aspects. I think I’d enjoy his music and empathize with his struggles as an outsider.

I like Bobby because he’s trying to find his way in the world. He’s on a mission, he knows what he wants. And is willing to do almost anything to get it. I’m kind of the same.
Also, I think we’d relate on the level of our love of music, though he’s a much better musician than I could ever hope to be. We’d also relate re: detective movies. There’s also things that we wouldn’t have in common, but that goes for anyone. 

Do you share any traits with your protagonist? Which traits?

I share traits with pretty much all of my characters because they’re filtered through me. In terms of Bobby specifically, we both love big band music. Both like detective movies. And I wish I could rock a fedora and a trench coat. I don’t smoke like he does. But I do sometimes feel like an outsider and Bobby is an outsider. In fact, he’s an outsider among a group of outsiders in the society of that time. I think we’re both struggling to find our way in the world. Like Bobby, I didn’t have a good relationship with my father and needed to look outside for role models. And I think, like him, I had certain screen characters that I found that in. And later musicians and some others. 

I’m also like him in that we’re both on missions. He to become a musician in the club band at the Club Alabam. And me to make something of myself as a writer. So even if Bobby and I are different in some ways I think in others we’re very similar. Driven. Dedicated. Sacrificing other things to do what we want. And trying to make our way in this crazy world.

What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?

This is a tough question because I know a lot of contemporary authors and if I mention someone then someone else’s feelings might be hurt if I leave them out. So I hope you don’t mind if I dodge this at least a little. I’ll talk about some books that I really like by well-known authors so no one feels snubbed. So these might not be the latest books I’ve read and loved, but they are definitely books I love.

Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep (and pretty much all of his novels). He’s a master of description and really puts me in the Los Angeles of another time. I feel like I’m there. And Philip Marlowe is the epitome of the cool, cynical P.I. Michael Connelly’s The Poet. I read it when it came out but it’s stuck with me and I’m ready to read it again. I like it because it’s so well written and plotted that you never see the twists coming. It’s my favorite of his books and blew me away when I read it.

Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. A hardcore look at the dark side of the LA sun, sand and surf scene.

Walter Mosely’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley brought back the P.I. novels of the 40s and 50s but from a new perspective. Easy and Mouse are memorable, well drawn characters.
David Goodis’ Down There (renamed Shoot the Piano Player after Francois Truffaut’s move of that name, based on the Goodis book). It’s been said that Goodis is the “poet of the losers” and that couldn’t be more true. But there’s something about his losers that keeps me coming back for more.
All of Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series. Mallory is a near-sociopathic NYC detective. She had a tough life and is a hard as nails cop. I turn almost everyone I know onto this series and people either love it and her or hate it. What I like is that even though Mallory is intense, the stories are poignant and touching. It’s almost like Mallory’s lack of empathy and warmth brings out the more human elements of the other characters.
James Ellroy. Particularly his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). His stories are tough. They don’t particularly conform to reality. And if you’ve ever been to one of his signings he’s whacko. And I guess that’s part of what I like about him.

What is your favorite book of all time?

My favorite book of all time isn’t a mystery. It’s The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. It’s about someone trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into everything, which is something I relate to and which also comes through in Bobby’s character. Another favorite book is Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I like revenge stories and that’s the revenge story to end all revenge stories. My favorite mystery would probably be Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Just so good.

What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your novels?

There’s a lot of good things, but if I had to pick one it’s getting to know people in the writing community. I’ve met a lot of terrific people. I’ve made some good friends and what more can you ask for? And I feel like there’s almost no state that I can’t go to and have dinner with someone. Someone maybe I’ve met already in person or someone that I only know online. That’s pretty cool. And it goes for some foreign countries too. 

What are you working on now?

I have several things going. I’m working on the third novel in my Duke Rogers series that began with White Heat and Broken Windows. I’m also working on a stand-alone that’s set in New York City. I’m known, to the extent that I’m “known,” as an LA writer. But I write things in other locales too. And I’m really excited about this NY novel. I think it’s pretty high concept and can’t wait to finish it. I’ve also had a series of stories running in Ellery Queen—the Howard Hamm stories—and I’m working on a new one in that series, which I hope they’ll like. Have recently completed a couple of short stories for anthologies. So there’s always something happening.

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn”. Betty Webb of Mystery Scene Magazine calls its sequel Broken Windows “Extraordinary”. His short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award. And “Fade-Out on Bunker Hill” came in second in the 2020 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. “Windward” was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, and won the 2018 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. He has written four novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories, including many award winners and nominees. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, and many others. He has served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Interview with Barbara Nickless

Barbara Nickless joins us today to talk about her novel, Gone to Darkness. 

Where did you get the idea for GONE TO DARKNESS? How did you know that was the book you wanted to write?

My publisher and I had agreed that we would transition Sydney and her K9 partner from the railroads, where they’d been cops through the first three books in the series, and officially into homicide investigations with Denver PD. As I considered ideas for Sydney’s introduction into Denver’s Major Crimes Unit, I decided to follow the advice of science fiction writer Damon Knight. Knight recommended creating a story by blending together two different ideas. In the case of GONE TO DARKNESS, I pursued three threads that had piqued my interest during my regular reading. First was the idea of our great silent underworld of workers—mostly women—many of whom are farm laborers or night-shift janitors or who work at meat packing plants. They are often voiceless and sometimes abused. I threaded that with the world of pickup artists, asking myself: what if a certain kind of man got tired of the seduction game and decided to simply take what he wanted? And finally, because a friend had introduced me to graphic novels, I plumbed the world of Comicsgate, a campaign meant to keep women out of comic book publishing.

For readers who may be new to your work, please briefly introduce us to Sydney Rose Parnell.
Sydney is a former Marine who served in Iraq in Mortuary Affairs, processing the bodies of the dead. Her struggle with PTSD was born out of my own post-traumatic suffering. Creating her character and writing her story became a way for me to work my way through the darkness.

What made you decide to have Sydney be a railroad cop at the series' inception?
I was looking for a twist on the usual police procedural, and when I learned that there are modern-day hobos and modern-day railroad cops—and that these cops have the same jurisprudence as traditional police, I had what I was looking for. 

The scenario I create in my books is that after Sydney returned home from the war, she wanted nothing more than to be as far away from people as she could while still earning a living wage. Because she comes from a long line of railroaders, she went through the police academy and signed on as a railroad cop—or a bull in hobo parlance. She figured working a territory that is 100 feet wide and 35,000 miles long, dealing with nothing but freight, would be perfect. And it was. Until the first body showed up.

Who or what was the inspiration for Sydney's canine partner Clyde? How did you approach researching how a canine partner would work?

My deep dive into understanding post-traumatic stress inevitably led me to learn about veterans, the group of people we most associate with PTSD. That, in turn, led me to military working dogs like Clyde. Dogs suffer from PTS just like humans, and I thought it would be good if Sydney had a partner to lean on, a partner who could also lean on her. It was a struggle for them at first. Clyde barely tolerated Sydney—he was still emotionally attached to his handler back in Iraq. I had a lot of fun developing their bond, as strong as any human-to-human connection.

Once I decided to give Sydney a K9 partner, I interviewed several police K9 handlers as well as reading everything I could. At one point I spoke with an instructor from the Air Force Academy and asked if I could meet the dogs and the handlers, maybe learn a few tricks. Picture Dwayne Johnson—aka The Rock—folding his arms and staring down at you with icy eyes. “I could show you, ma’am,” he said. “But then I’d have to kill you.”

So maybe I wasn’t quite ready to die for the cause. Instead, I was scheduled to meet with the handler and see the dogs at another air force base. Then the pandemic struck. Fortunately, I knew the owner of Mountain High Service Dogs, and Candy became an invaluable resource.

GONE TO DARKNESS is your fourth thriller featuring Sydney. How do you keep your series fresh?
As a writer, I’m definitely not interested in wash, rinse, repeat. Each book has required a different approach and created new challenges. I went full gonzo with the third book, stepping away from traditional mystery and writing a homage to one of my favorite TV series, Homeland. It was so much fun ramping up the thriller aspects of the story. 

If your Sydney was actually a real person, would you be friends with them? Why or why not? Would you like to have a Clyde of your own?
First of all, I definitely couldn’t keep up with Sydney if we were to sit down together in a bar—and I’m not saying that’s how I define friendship, although it seems to be one of my favorite activities. With Sydney, I’d be the first to pass out, and she’d trundle me into her car and make sure I got safely home. And that would be the end of our relationship. On the other hand, we share a love of good books and a strong conscience. So maybe she’d forgive for being a lightweight.

As for having a dog like Clyde, that’s a great question. Clyde is a Belgian Malinois, and these dogs require a very committed handler/partner/owner. They’re incredibly smart and have a very strong prey drive—which means anything, including your favorite shoes or the screen door—are game. There’s a reason they’re called “maligators.” Another great saying is, “Pride goeth before a Mal.” So as much as I love and admire dogs like Clyde, I know when I’ve met my match.

What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising. I love when a story is driven by the decisions the characters make—decisions that feel inevitable because the character is so fully fleshed. Even when we want to take the character by the shoulders and shake them for making bad decisions, we understand completely. And we’ll follow them anywhere. The hero of Black Water Rising, Jay Porter, is someone who just wants to be a good husband and make enough money as a small-time lawyer to support his growing family. He wants, simply, to be a good man. But events conspire to lead him astray. Give me a novel with a sense of moral urgency and I’m happy.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Now that is the hardest question of all. I’ve read thousands of books, and many of them affected me deeply. So just one? I’ll stick with the mystery/thriller genre and say Gorky Park. The conflicted and morally-driven character of Arkady Renko, set in motion by an intricate plot, and working in the dangerous world of the Soviet Union during the Cold War—perfection! Of course, there’s also The Constant Gardener (John le Carré), Mystic River (Dennis Lehane) and Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Hoeg), all of which have wonderfully developed characters and a sense of moral urgency.

What are you working on now?
Sydney and Clyde get to take a break while I write a spin-off novel based on a character introduced in GONE TO DARKNESS. Evan Wilding is a forensic semiotician—he studies the signs, symbols, and writing left at crime scenes. With that evidence, he builds a profile of the suspect. His regular gig—aside from working as a college professor—is helping Chicago PD with their most difficult cases. He also consults with the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies—the FBI, CIA, NSA, and so on.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Corpse with the Crystal Skull by Cathy Ace and the Jamaican Ginger Kicker

Cathy Ace joins us today to tell us about her novel, The Corpse with the Crystal Skull and match it with the perfect drink. Cathy is one of our favorite authors here at Mystery Playground and we're thrilled that's she's back with us today. 

The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is the ninth Cait Morgan Mystery, and this time Cait is in Jamaica, celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband Bud. They’re staying at a luxurious private estate owned by the eccentric Freddie Burkinshaw, who is discovered shot to death in an inaccessible room at the top of a tower reputedly built by Cait’s namesake, Sir Henry Morgan. 

Thus begins a tale that becomes increasingly complex, and mysterious. Cait has to grapple with her conscience as she’s forced to consider people she counts among her tiny group of friends as suspects; there’s the thrill of hunting down lost treasure; some shenanigans involving hidden passages, and a high-security task Bud’s been sent to Jamaica to undertake, aided by his secret-service colleagues. It’s complicated. Ian Fleming has a few things to answer for, and there’s more than a walk-on role for an ageing Italian movie star. 

Anyone who’s read a Cait Morgan Mystery knows Cait enjoys a drink, and in Jamaica she’s spoiled for choice. She’s become mildly addicted to a grapefruit-flavoured soda called Ting, which she sometimes adds to gin – but she usually resets to her standard gin and tonic for the evenings. But something she invented during her time in Jamaica is a drink she calls the Jamaican Ginger Kicker. Inspired by the Moscow Mule, Cait took vodka, added a splash of pineapple soda for a little sweetness, then added real Jamaican ginger beer (yes, Jamaican ginger beer has a specific flavour – it’s spicy! – and, yes, it’s worth getting the real thing). The full recipe appears below – you might want to try one of these when the weather is hot, you settle down with a good book (maybe even this one, to get the entire beach-side vibe), and you need something long and refreshing. It’s got some bite, but the pineapple adds depth, and sweetness. Lime is an essential ingredient – you certainly need one to squeeze into the drink, and maybe another, for decoration. Cheers, folks!


  • Large glass, with ice cubes
  • 1 measure of vodka 
  • Splash of Grace brand Island Soda Pineapple (add to taste)
  • Bottle of Grace brand Island Soda Ginger Beer
  • Squeeze one LARGE wedge of lime into the drink, add a small one for garnish (garnish is your choice!) 

(Tip: put your ginger beer, pineapple soda, and vodka in the fridge to chill beforehand)

(NOTE: Crystal Head vodka – shown in the photograph – is made in Newfoundland, Canada, and was the “brainchild” of the actor Dan Ackroyd. It’s a peaches-and-cream corn-based vodka, which this author prefers it for its pure, clean flavour. And the bottle, designed by artist John Alexander, is spectacular!)

ABOUT THE BOOK: Welsh Canadian globetrotting sleuth, and professor of criminal psychology, Cait Morgan, is supposed to be “celebrating” her fiftieth birthday in Jamaica with her ex-cop husband Bud Anderson. But when the body of the luxury estate’s owner is discovered locked inside an inaccessible tower, Cait and her fellow guests must work out who might have killed him – even if his murder seems impossible. Could the death of the man who hosted parties in the 1960s attended by Ian Fleming and Noël Coward be somehow linked to treasure the legendary Captain Henry Morgan might have buried at the estate? Or to the mission Bud and his secret service colleagues have been sent to the island to undertake?

You can find Cathy on Facebook, and on Twitter @AceCathy. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Nacho Average Murder and The Quarantine Margarita

The fabulous Edith Maxwell joins us today writing as Maddie Day for a fabulous quarantine cocktail to celebrate her latest Country Store Mystery, Nacho Average Murder. And one lucky reader (US residents only) can win a copy of the book. to enter just comment below naming your favorite warm weather drink. Now let's hear about Nacho Average Murder.

Robbie Jordan, who normally lives, works, and cooks in southern Indiana, loved being back in her hometown of Santa Barbara for her high school reunion. And I loved putting her there. She indulged in eating avocado huevos rancheros, quesadillas, artichokes, and of course nachos. What better drink to accompany that kind of food than a margarita?
I know the best margarita recipes include fresh-squeezed lime juice and Cointreau or Grand Mariner with the tequila. Uh-oh. I didn’t have either enough fresh limes or an orange liqueur. But you know what? During a time of quarantine, we make do. 

When I make the drink, I like to use a dollop of frozen limeade. It’s quick, easy, cold, and already sweet – and I had some in the freezer. I also had tequila in the liquor cabinet. In lieu of an orange liqueur, I thought I’d see how the Cardamaro my son brought me from Italy would work in the drink. You might know Amaro, but here’s the description of Cardamaro: “A wine-based aperitif, infused with cardoon and blessed thistle (two artichoke relatives), then aged in oak. The result has the richness and weight of sweet vermouth, and only a gentle herbal bitterness.”

Artichoke? Works for me, and it worked for the drink. 

Quarantine Margarita
For one drink, mix in a tumbler or shaker:
2 ounces (1/4 cup) frozen limeade (yes, scoop it right from the can)
2 ounces tequila of your choice
1 tablespoon Cardamaro (or any orange liqueur)
2 ice cubes
Sprinkle kosher salt on a plate. Wet the rim of a pretty Mexican glass and press it upside down onto the salt. Decant the drink contents, straining out the ice, from the tumbler or shaker into the salted glass. Stick a slice of lime on the rim and enjoy a mystery set in Santa Barbara!

Readers: What’s your favorite warm-weather drink? I’d love to send one of you (US only) a singed copy of the book!

Agatha Award-winning author Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and multi-published short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she pens the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. With twenty-one books in print and more in production, Maxwell/Day lives north of Boston, where she writes, gardens, and cooks. Find her at Maddie Day Author and as @MaddieDayAuthor on social media.
In Nacho Average Murder, Robbie Jordan temporarily leaves Pans ’N Pancakes, her country store in South Lick, Indiana, to visit Santa Barbara—where wildfire smoke tinges the air, but a more immediate danger may lie in wait.

While looking forward to her high school reunion back in California, Robbie Jordan’s anticipation is complicated by memories of her mother’s untimely death. At first, she has fun hanging out with her old classmates and reuniting with the local flavors—avocados, citrus, fish, and spicy Cali-Mex dishes. But when she gets wind of rumors that her mother, an environmental activist, may not have died of natural causes, Robbie enlists old friends to clear the smoke surrounding the mystery. But what she finds could make it hard to get back to Indiana alive . . .

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and the Violet Hour

The new collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense (Crippen & Landru) gathers sixteen stories by Art Taylor—among them stories which have won a dozen of the mystery genre’s leading awards, including the Edgar, the Anthony, and multiple Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. Recently, another of Art’s stories—“Better Days” from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—was named a finalist for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story (read all the nominated stories at that link). Last year, Art wrote a Drinks with Reads post for “Better Days”, and today he offers another cocktail to accompany his new collection.  

The sixteen stories in The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense cover more than twenty-five years of my writing career. Needless to say, re-reading those stories myself offered opportunities for reflection about that quarter-century of work—where I started as a writer, where I’ve evolved, and where (hopefully) I’ve improved. Some of the individual stories seemed reflective themselves: characters thinking about their lives, pondering existential issues, debating hard choices. The title story especially is steeped in nostalgia, swirled with a bit of melancholy, and topped with a dollop of regret.

The cocktail I’ve chosen to accompany The Boy Detective is called the Violet Hour. I know of at least two mentions of that phrase in books on my shelf. In The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, Bernard DeVoto writes about the martini being suited to “the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.” And in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, James Bond christens his famous version of the martini as The Vesper: “It sounds perfect and it’s very appropriate to the violet hour when my cocktail will now be drunk all over the world.”

While each of those references refer to gin drinks and speak specifically to early evening—day easing toward night—the Violet Hour recipe below is bourbon-based and a drink I would more strongly recommend as a nightcap alongside some late-night reflections of your own: your senses settling, your mind wandering, memories tiptoeing around the edges of your thoughts. 

My friend Brandon Wicks introduced me to this drink. I’m not certain of its origins, and Googling “Violet Hour cocktail” will turn up several other cocktails with markedly different ingredients. But this specific recipe has become a regular at our house, and I’m glad to share it here. 

The Violet Hour

2 oz. bourbon
.75 oz. sweet vermouth
.25 oz. dry vermouth
.10 oz. blackstrap rum (a little over half a teaspoon)
2 dashes old-fashioned bitters

Build in a single old-fashioned glass with no ice. Stir.
Serve at room temperature. No garnish.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Here Come the Body and The NY Sour

Today we celebrate the first book in the Catering Hall Mystery series, Here Comes the Body. Written by long-time Mystery Playground fan favorite, Ellen Byron as Maria DiRico, Here Comes the Body, delivers a catering packed punch and a great drink below.

In Here Comes the Body, the first Catering Hall Mystery from Maria DiRico, Mia Carina moves back home to Queens after being cleared as a person of interest in her husband’s presumed death. She’s there to help her father Ravello, a capo with the Boldoni crime family, turn a rundown banquet hall that was surrendered to him by a broke gambler into a successful, legitimate enterprise. Mia has always wanted her father to go straight and she’s determined to help succeed. But who knew working for a catering hall could be as dangerous as working for the Mob?

Many is the night Mia comes home in need of a drink. Being a Big Apple native, even if she’s an outer borough girl, she turns to local recipes, like this one…

2 oz. rye or bourbon whiskey
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
½ oz. fruity red wine

Combine the rye or bourbon whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice, cover, and shake until outside of shaker is frosty, about 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass that’s filled with fresh ice. Slowly and carefully poor the wine over the back of a spoon held just above the drink's surface so wine floats on top.
Recipe by Mary-Frances Heck, Bon Appetit

BIO: Ellen’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won an Agatha award and multiple Lefty awards for Best Humorous Mystery. Her new series, the Catering Hall Mysteries, written as Maria DiRico, was inspired by her real life. She’s an award-winning playwright and non-award-winning TV writer of comedies like WINGS, JUST SHOOT ME, and FAIRLY ODD PARENTS. But her most impressive credit is working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review: Paul Levine's Cheater's Game

Mary Putnam takes a break from her usual crafty creations and literary libations to review Paul Levine's Cheater's Game today. Let's hear what she has to day...

Paul Levine's CHEATER'S GAME, book 14 in his series of Jake Lassiter legal thrillers (to be released on April 20, 2020), struck a chord with me on many happy levels even though I'd not previously read any of Paul's books. Before I delve into the details, a few disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: Although I'd not met his characters before, I have had the pleasure of meeting Paul a few times at various mystery conferences and events. Also, I received a copy of this book for free. I've done my best to write a fair and unbiased review.

Disclaimer #2: It's April 14 of 2020 and I've not left my house since a month ago--Friday the 13th!--due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of course the world is not the same since I read this book, while on a cruise ship the first week in March. So the lens through which I'm seeing everything at the moment is a bit skewed.

I hope we'll all persevere and find humor in a variety of non-ideal situations, like the novel's hero, Jake Lassiter, does often. For example, as Jake grapples with his own medical challenges he observes: "I'm sure doctors invented hospital gowns to embarrass patients so completely that they'll be more amenable to following orders." (I'm also noticing you can't say "embarrass" without saying "bare-ass" -- coincidence? -- I think not.)

As the story unfolds, the author deftly illuminates various themes and topics "ripped from the headlines" (e.g. the college admissions scandal and football head injuries) as well as timeless questions like: "How can I convince my kid of anything while he thinks he knows more than me?"

Jake's character is well-drawn and well-balanced; not too perfect so as to become a caricature (as happens in some thrillers!) yet not so flawed we don't believe he has a chance of succeeding in his mission to save his nephew, Kip, from himself. I'm a sucker for an underdog, and also for a guy who's secure enough to NOT be intimidated by a strong and/or smart woman, so I enjoyed the relationship between Jake and his super-smart fiancee, Dr. Melissa Gold. They make a great team, struggling to help the still-very-much-a-kid Kip, who's smart on many counts--except seeing that he needs help.

I agree with Michael Connelly who called CHEATER'S GAME: "Clever, funny and on point when it comes to the inequities of society and the justice system." My favorite books enlighten while they entertain. This does both while talking the reader on a fun ride with surprising plot twists, a tour of sunny Florida and parts of California, and even some tasty food. Yum!

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Lost Boys of London and #Cocktails

We welcome Mary Lawrence to Mystery Playground to introduce her new novel, The Lost Boys of London. This is the 5th book in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries. 

Today I’m celebrating the upcoming release (April 28) of The Lost Boys of London—a Bianca Goddard Mystery. The series features the daughter of an infamous alchemist who uses her wits and a bit of alchemy to solve murders in the slums of London during King Henry VIII’s reign.
In the Lost Boys of London, Bianca's husband is fighting the Scottish rebellion while Bianca remains in London creating medicines for the sick. When a boy is found hanging from a church dripstone Bianca is consulted about a sole piece of evidence--a sweet-smelling cloth. Bianca suspects the murder may not be an act of impulse, but something far more calculated. And when her young acquaintance, Fisk, goes missing, Bianca fears he may become the next lost boy...
I chose the Smirking Priest Gimlet to go with my latest book. The name came up on a cocktail drink name generator but I couldn’t find a recipe so I conjured my own. I took a basic gimlet and added a touch of red—appropriate for a murder mystery. Enjoy this while you read about some dastardly priests working at cross purposes in The Lost Boys of London
The priest at St. Benet’s, Father Wells, began each day with a meal of poached quail eggs. While he waited to be served, he studied the silvery gray light outside his window, which overlooked a long stretch of enclosed garden—alas, still dormant and showing no signs of waking. The overcast sky promised another dreary day, and he felt his mood adversely affected. It made him think—why was it that one associated sunshine with a sanguine disposition? He tapped his spoon on the table as he considered this, then the spoon stopped midair. Likely, it was because sunshine was so uncommon. It was like a gift from God every time colors were lit to their full intensity. He nodded, content with his explanation.
   Finally, his meal arrived. The platter was lowered in front of him and his wine refreshed. His cook had arranged the twelve eggs—one for each disciple—around the periphery of the plate; an artful attempt to symbolize the seating at the Last Supper. In the center was a slice of bread, toasted lightly on one side—Jesus. 
He scooped up an egg and deposited it on one corner of the toast, then raised it level with his mouth. “Peter,” he said, naming the first apostle, and he bit off the corner. With each successive egg he named a disciple and ate “him” along with “Jesus,” saving “Judas Iscariot” for last, taking the time to bite “Judas” in half and watch his little yolk bleed. 


  • 2 ounces fine Gin
  • 1 ounce Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice
  • 1 teaspoon Pomegranate Juice

In a shaker with ice combine the gin and lime juice. Shake for a minute. Strain into a chilled glass. Drizzle in a teaspoon of pomegranate juice which will sink to the bottom to look like a spot of blood. Enjoy!