Last time I checked, murder is not on a wedding caterer’s official to-do list. They would have a tough time getting paid if bodies started popping up during the reception. But, that’s exactly what happens to Julia Snowden in Barbara Ross’ “Clammed Up.” An already cash strapped family business faces disaster when the groom’s missing best man is found hanged on the island where the clambake reception will be held – before wedding vows can even be exchanged.
Why is Ray Wilson dead? How did the body get there? How many people had a motive? Will the murder kill the business or bring the tourists in droves? Will the bank listen to reason? So many questions raised by Ray’s untimely demise, and Ross supplies us with multiple answers for each in this charming cozy.
Julia Snowden is back in Maine to save the family clambake business. Her father is dead, her brother-in-law has over-borrowed to keep the operation afloat, and Julia (with her venture capitalist background) seems like the perfect person to save the day. Except that the bank doesn’t want to hear her tale of woe; they will call in the loan of $1.5 million dollars if the business is closed for more than five days during the short Maine tourist season. The pesky murder takes up one of those days. And counting.
The murder, the engaged couple with lots to hide, the childhood crush who has grown into a hunky young man, an AWOL son, family accusations and betrayal, the police who seem to be dragging their heels, millions of dollars at stake, the friends who act as sounding boards when Julia can’t figure out why all this is happening – all combine to make “Clammed Up” a very satisfying mystery. The important characters are agreeably drawn – Gus, the restaurant owner, is a gem and his ‘house rules’ are hilarious. He carries the Maine anti-outsider bias to extreme by barring anyone he doesn’t know – and gets away with it.
Beyond the inventive storyline, “Clammed Up” introduces us to the behind-the-scenes world of a real Maine Clambake and tells us how the seafood is stored to keep it fresh and cold. We are walked through a dinner prep and service, with the entire staff working to get the food on the tables so that each guest can have the full experience of cracking the lobsters, opening the clams, and wearing the bibs, all at the same time. Although not really a foodie book, Ross does weave food deliciously throughout the plot with a conversational tone – Julia sharing her story over a bottle of cold Sea Dog ale, chatting about the meals she has eaten along the way to solving the crime.
The prominent subplot of the precarious seasonal businesses at the Maine coast is handled effectively. Ross discloses the constantly present issues of bad weather and limited time available to make the yearly income, and it is clear that both play a huge role in the livelihood of both employers and employees alike. Rain keeps the tourists away and everybody suffers. B&B owners give up their own bedrooms for paying customers for the season, just so the bills can be paid for the rest of the year. A few rainy days scattered throughout the summer is bad enough, but if a hurricane hits and homes or businesses are damaged, or the economy slumps and people stay home, then disaster strikes. Not everyone has the cash reserves to come back from that, as has been demonstrated after real-life disasters up and down the East coast of this country.
Happily, there are mouthwatering recipes at the end of “Clammed Up.” I can’t wait to try the lobster mac & cheese and the blueberry grunt. I’m already salivating and getting my grocery list ready.
Barbara Ross’ thoroughly enjoyable “Clammed Up,” is an Agatha Award nominated book for Best Contemporary Novel. I’ll post the results after the votes are in this weekend.
Please visit www.maineclambakemysteries.com for more information about Barbara Ross and her next book in the series, “Boiled Over.”