Spice World

I didn’t grow up in a household of spices and flavors.

That’s not me being disrespectful to my family; they were from rural Alabama and beyond the basics–salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar–they never had much access to anything beyond that, other than what was used in specialty/special occasion foods, like stuffing/dressing at the holidays. Once my mother stopped working and became a stay-at-home mom, she began teaching herself how to cook–she always had a Betty Crocker cookbook in the kitchen when I was a kid–and began using other spices; but those basics were all I knew and it wasn’t until I got much older–fifty-ish–that I, too, began teaching myself how to cook and learned to stop being afraid of experimenting in the kitchen (alas, this was also around the time I quit smoking and injured my back, which kept me out of the gym. The end result is the long-bemoaned weight gain I’ve been struggling with in the decade since). My friend Michael is a terrific cook, very knowledgeable, and I’ve spent many an hour sitting in the kitchen watching him cook and learning from him tips and techniques; I have also learned to not stick to measurements in recipes and do it from instinct–and not to be afraid to make mistakes here and there. (I put way too much onion in a mac-and-cheese dish I made for the kids at the office once, which was mortifying.)

I also know how the spice trade changed world history–the silk road was also the spice road between Asia and Europe.

So Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mysteries are definitely right up my alley.

“Parsley poop.” The Indian silver chandeliers hanging from the Spice Shop’s high ceiling swayed, their flame-shaped bulbs flickering. The crystal candelabra they flanked burned on defiantly. As I stared up, unsure whether to curse the Market’s hodgepodge of ancient and modern wiring or the fixtures themselves, all three blinked, then went dark.

“Cash register’s got power,” Sandra called from behind the front counter. “And the red light district’s open.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the miniature lamp perched on the Chinese apothecary that displays our signature teas and accessories. The red silk shade glowed steadily, a beacon in the back corner.

“Better call the electrician,” I said at the exact moment as my customer asked, “where’s your panel?” and Lynette, my newest and most annoying employee, said, “I’ll check the breakers.”

Guilty as Cinnamon is the second book in the series, following Assault and Pepper (which I also greatly enjoyed), and this is a worthy successor to that series debut. Pepper Reece runs Seattle Spices, a spice shop in historic Pike’s Market, and is an engaging character for the reader to identify with and root for. Divorced from Tag, a bike cop who pops up regularly (she divorced him for cheating), she also lost her job in HR at a prestigious law firm when some of the partners turned out to be crooks and the firm closed. She bought the spice shop and a gorgeous loft apartment nearby in an attempt to reboot her life and start over, and is a walking encyclopedia of spices–how to blend and mix, what works best in what recipe, and can identify them by smell. (This olfactory knowledge often comes in useful when she’s involved in a crime.)

This time around, Pepper finds herself mixed up in murder and mayhem in the cutthroat world of the restaurant business of Seattle; a former boyfriend, Alex Howard, an Emeril-type figure in Seattle who is also kind of a dick, fires an assistant who is secretly planning to open a restaurant, partnering with another successful restauranteur in the city, Danielle Bordeaux. He fires her because Tamara, who plans on using Pepper as a supplier, comes into the shop and discusses business in front of an incompetent Seattle Spice employee, Lynette; Lynette tips off Alex. Tamara is fired and Pepper fires Lynette–and then Tamara is murdered. Pepper is the one who finds the body, and the case is off and running. Pepper can’t help but feel a little responsible, having found the body, as well as her employee having tipped off Alex, who is the number one suspect. It turns out as well that Tamara was murdered by ghost pepper–an insanely hot pepper that can, per the book, be fatal if ingested in large enough doses. Pepper had given Tamara samples of the ones she carries in the shop during the fateful visit; adding to her sense of responsibility.

She also lands herself a new potential love interest: reporter Ben Bradley (the investigating detectives are Spencer and Tracy; Budewitz loves punny names–and names actually play a vital role in this case). Or will she reunite with her ex, Tag, who seems to be interested in that very thing happening? Can he be trusted?

And are there ghosts involved?

Guilty as Cinnamon is not only an engaging and fun read–several times I had to stop and wonder, who is the killer here, and why–and was wrong every step of the way; but the author doesn’t cheat; like all the best traditional mystery writers, the clues are provided along the way in a nonchalant way that also makes them incredibly easy to miss–but they are there. Budewitz is also a charming writer, weaving a web that it’s very hard for her readers to extricate themselves from. Seattle and Pike’s Market and the shop are drawn so realistically and vividly that they are a workshop in setting as character.

And the food–the spices, the smells, the tastes, the textures–of everything are described so lovingly and with such vivid detail that I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier with every meal–from appetizers to wine to falafel burgers to salads.

What an incredibly fun series, and it’s definitely one I look forward to visiting again.