Montana mystery queen Leslie Budewitz chuckles as she picks up the phone, admitting she’s a tad disheveled after flying home from attending the annual Malice Domestic Mystery Convention in Bethesda, Maryland, to promote her fifth Seattle Spice Shop cozy, “Chai Another Day.” Her welcome home distraction? A party of snowshoe hares going crazy over three deer, fast asleep in the meadow behind her Bigfork home. “I’ve got conference brain, apparently,” she concedes.
Multi-Agatha Award winner Budewitz has days like this when her life as a Billings-born country girl collide with her city-girl duties, which include promoting her latest cozy mystery and working with Sisters in Crime to help up-and-coming authors tango their way into print.
For those not familiar with the genre, “cozy mysteries,” or “cozies,” are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex or violence are downplayed or treated with wry humor. They stand in whimsical contrast with traditional mysteries, in which violence is usually essential to the plot of the story; mysteries of this type focus as much on the puzzle as the plot. In most cases the crime and detection take place in small, socially intimate communities, hence the “cozy” nickname. “Food cozies” usually revolve around kitchens, dining rooms and restaurants.
Not coincidentally, the country girl and city girl dichotomy that is Budewitz has inspired her two successful cozy mystery series. The first, labeled the Food Lovers’ Village series and set in and around the fictitious hamlet of Jewel Bay in northwest Montana, features gourmet foodie Erin Murphy as head of her family’s century-old General Mercantile, aka the Merc. Her debut novel, “Death Al Dente,” won the 2013 Agatha for Best First Novel. Book number six in the series hits bookstores next spring.
In 2015, Budewitz launched her second series, in which Seattle spice shop owner Pepper Reece manages to keep her tea and spice shop going in Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, while she and the market crowd she runs with copes with chaotic city life.
Reading mysteries has been a passion since birth for this country girl, starting with the Happy Hollister family and the Bobbsey Twins series, then progressing through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys until she made the leap to Agatha Christie. The city girl, however, had to wait until college, when Budewitz enrolled at Seattle University, after which she landed a coveted law-school spot at Notre Dame.
“I did read a lot of mysteries as a young adult, even in law school,” she recalls. “That was my reading before sleep. In fact, I’ve often said that reading a few minutes of Victoria Holt every night in law school allowed me to put all thoughts of torts and taxes out of my brain. “Unfortunately, some of those thoughts, particularly of taxes, stayed permanently out of my brain. I have an English degree as well, so I’ve read a lot of other things, too, but the mysteries just kept calling to me.”
From Lawyer to Crime Writer
After practicing law in Seattle for several years, Budewitz returned to northwest Montana, where a curious turn of events prompted her to try her hand at writing cozy mysteries.
“I started writing in my late 30s when I was living outside of St. Ignatius, which out in this part of the state we call ‘Mission,’ because that’s where the Jesuit mission to the Flathead Indians was located. I was helping teach a class in legal writing at the law school in Missoula, so I drove back and forth a lot.
“We didn’t have a public library in St. Ignatius; it’s a very small town, but the library in Missoula will allow anyone to check out books, even if you don’t live in Missoula, because they take state funds, they figure anyone should be able to have a card. So, I got audio books. And this is what really pulled me back into mystery, and when I started writing seriously, it came out as mystery. I was listening to audio books and most of their collection of tapes was mystery.
“So that’s how I discovered – well, I may have already known of Sara Paretsky; I hope I already did – but Sue Grafton, Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael stories, Elizabeth Peters and her Amelia Peabody series. And most significantly, Tony Hillerman; his books are set in the four corners region of Arizona and New Mexico on the reservations there.
“Here I was, a single woman lawyer living alone on an Indian reservation in western Montana. I realized that I could write something set right there, and I realized that because of Hillerman. And I realized that my place hadn’t been written about much; at that point, James Lee Burke had only written one book set in Montana (if he’d written more, I might never have started!), and Peter Bowen was writing his (Gabriel Du Pre) mysteries set up along the highline north of Great Falls. There were a couple of other writers setting contemporary books here, but not much, so reading Hillerman made me realize that Montana was a perfectly legitimate and perfectly wonderful setting for books.”
As she began to write in other genres, her love of northwest Montana continued to blossom, and with it the realization that her neck of the forest was ripe for food-crazed cozies.
“The unpublished books, my ‘practice novels’ as they’re often referred to, they are all set here. When I decided to return to working on cozy mysteries, I picked Montana because it hadn’t been done in the cozy-mystery world. And because this area where I live now (Bigfork) is so surprising; it’s not what people think of but it is as legitimate a part of Montana as any other,” she says.
“People think of the cowboy West, and they may think a little bit of the hiking- boot West because we are very close to Glacier National Park, and many people have been to the park and around this area. What they don’t think about is this little town that’s got a lot of great food and a community theater and wonderful art galleries. Bigfork is a small resort town tucked into northwestern Montana. It’s not something people would expect. It’s on the northeast corner of Flathead Lake and it’s just a lovely, lovely little community. It is the basis for the town of Jewel Bay in my Food Lovers Village books.”
It’s also where she met her husband Don Beans, a singer-songwriter and doctor of natural medicine who grew up just east of the mountains in Great Falls. “I had a hip injury and was getting acupuncture and got set up on a blind date and so far, so good, 20 years later,” she chuckles.
Leslie’s years spent in Seattle helped her city girl choose the obvious choice as a setting for her second series.
“I wanted to write a second series, in part because in order to make a living as a writer, you’ve got to have one or two books a year unless you’re extremely fortunate. So I really enjoyed the cozy, but I wanted to do something that was different, that was a contrast to the small town setting of the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. And the small-town setting is most typical in cozies, but there are a handful of series that you might consider urban cozies.
“I can remember walking in Seattle with my husband and I just said, ‘I have to set one here. Where could it be?’ and we decided that it had to be at the Pike Place Market, because the heart of an urban cozy is a community within the community; otherwise the cozy elements aren’t all there. You’ve got to have that community aspect.
“We realized that the Market is the perfect illustration. I’m not exactly sure how I came up with the Spice Shop; maybe because that has always been one of the iconic places of Pike Place Market for me. The first Starbucks opened there in about 1971. I discovered it when I went to college at Seattle University, and the second Starbucks was on Broadway, just a few blocks from college. It was cute, but you certainly would never have imagined that there would be one in every major airport and within walking distance of every convention center all around the country and far beyond. The original Starbucks is still there in the Market and it’s very popular; a lot of people want to have a cup of coffee at the original place.
Budewitz admits it is easy to shift voices between Erin in Food Lovers’ Village and Pepper at Spice Shop.
“It’s not hard at all because the characters are different,” Budewitz says. “There were a few times when I was first writing the Spice Shop Mysteries when I was kind of sorry that I had chosen another food-related business, and both were first-person narratives, because I was still a new writer and making sure that I kept the two settings distinct was a little tricky at first.
“But at this point, it’s not. As soon as I move to Seattle in my head, I’m in Pepper’s voice, and I have given her a very different path and a very different outlook than Erin. So then I can just slide right into those characters. They just have very different lives.”
In fact, the two distinct settings actually help this author cook up her plots.
“The Food Lovers’ Village series features a different festival in every book. In Montana, we love our festivals. They are a lot of fun, but they’re also an economic driver, which we really need in tourist country; we have to have a lot of things going on in summer to bring people in and fill the coffers for the rest of the year. Some of the festivals in the Food Lovers’ Village series are real ones that my village or another nearby town has, and some of them are made up.
“The Seattle series, I’m sitting at my desk right now and I’m looking at the wall next to the door and I’ve got the posters from the covers of the first couple of books as well as posters from the public market that I bought when I was a student, and those have really helped keep me grounded in the Market. But I’ve also tried to move Pepper out into the city of Seattle, into various neighborhoods as well so that the location stays really front and center.”
“I’m a very placed person, a very placed writer. I don’t want anyone to read any of my books and not feel that they have taken a trip somewhere.”
When she’s not dreaming up new trouble for her foody crews, she’s busy helping Sisters in Crime, a nonprofit that proved key to her publishing breakthrough and for which she served as president in 2015-16. Founded in 1986, the group now has over 3500 members in 51 chapters world-wide, offering networking, advice and support to mystery authors. As the group’s website (www.sistersincrime.org) explains, “We are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the mystery genre and our support of women who write mysteries.”
What’s next for Budewitz?
Perhaps a short-story collection set in 1885 in Montana Territory, based on a real-life historical figure named Stagecoach Mary Fields, aka Black Mary. You can read her first story on the subject, All God’s Sparrows, which just won her another Agatha Award for best short story, on her personal website, www.lesliebudewitz.com. The author is also working on a stand-alone book, set mostly in Billings but with scenes in Red Lodge and Portland, Oregon, that runs from 1981 to the present.
Will the television world ever serve these foodies up on the small screen?
“Oh my goodness, wouldn’t that be just fabulous?” she says. “The Seattle series especially, because people love Seattle and because so much of the Hallmark filming is done not very far from there in Vancouver, B.C. I haven’t been approached by any film companies, but that would be delightful!”