The Irish Channel

Writing a cozy set in New Orleans seemed, at first, to be a little daunting.

One of the key tenets of a cozy is the sense of community one gets while reading it (see Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series for the perfect example; I love Caerphilly, Virginia, and enjoy revisiting twice a year to see how everyone is doing), and it took me a moment to readjust my thinking from “community means a small town” to “no, you moron, anything can be a community; and you can certainly find community in New Orleans.” And then I remembered Leslie Budewitz’ superlative Spice Shop series, which is set in Pike’s Market in Seattle. Seattle is a city, just as New Orleans is; and sure, it might be easier to just invent an entire new fictional small town to set a cozy series in, but if anything, there’s more sense of community in New Orleans than I’ve ever felt in other cities…and it was really about creating a community around my character, Valerie, and picking a neighborhood for her in which to live took me a while as I weighed pros and cons; the only thing that was definite was she was NOT going to live in the French Quarter (there’s a throwaway line where she thinks about how long it’s been since she’s been to the Quarter, and maybe she and her two best friends should arrange to have dinner at Galatoire’s or Antoine’s–yes, I used two of the better known restaurants in the city and the Quarter for the examples, but I also knew I could mention them without needing to explain them to the reader). I did go back and forth about the Marigny or Bywater, but finally decided to put her into a neighborhood that did not flood during Katrina, which narrowed the choices dramatically.

New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods used to be so distinct that knowing what part of the city someone lived would automatically create some assumptions–just as how the ever-popular question of where’d you go to high school used to be another way to connect with someone you’ve just met–there are any number of differences between those who went to Newman or Jesuit or Holy Cross or Ursulines or Ben Franklin or Warren Easton or McMain Magnet. New Orleans is a small enough city that chances were, you’d also know (or ar related to )someone else who’d gone to that high school at the same time, or you also knew other people who lived in their neighborhood. Obviously, the French Quarter is perhaps the most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, followed by the Garden District, working down through the Marigny, the Bywater, Mid-city, Gentilly, Lakeview, Broadmoor, etc. (With the gentrification of the city over the past sixteen or so years, realtors have also started creating new neighborhoods–which can be confusing. For example, they are trying to rebrand the Central Business District–the CBD–into SoMa, South of Market, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever as there is no market for the area to be south of; I often will have someone mention one of these new neighborhoods by name to me and I have no idea what they are talking about. They are also trying to rebrand the 7th Ward as the “new Marigny”…good luck with that.)

Scotty lives in the Quarter, and Chanse lives in the Lower Garden District–I’ve also written a lot of stories set in that neighborhood, which is also where I’ve always lived, and is quite distinct from the actual Garden District–I used to joke that we lived four blocks and three decimal points from the Garden District. So having done those neighborhoods already extensively, I wanted to pick a new place for Valerie to live and for me to write about.

I’ve always kind of been partial to the Irish Channel, although we’ve always lived in the Lower Garden District (distinct from the Garden District). I wrote one book about the Irish Channel already (aptly titled Murder in the Irish Channel), and of course, when I needed a place for Valerie to live, I decided the Channel would be the perfect place for her. Twenty years or so ago there will still blighted and crumbling houses in that neighborhood just waiting to be purchased, renovated and gentrified. The stretch of Magazine she lives near used to be one of my favorite parts of the city–I met any number of people for coffee at the Rue de la Course that used to be there, I used to really enjoy the Semolina’s restaurant as well as the Middle Eastern place whose name I can’t remember now (Byblos? it was the last restaurant meal in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina), and of course I sometimes shopped at the A&P or the Walgreens–before I realized Prytania and Tchoupitoulas were the easiest and quickest ways to get uptown; I wasted a lot of time stuck in Magazine Street traffic back in the day. Our friends Carrie and Lisa used to rent half of an enormous Victorian house near Third and Constance; I loved that enormous, drafty and dusty old house (it’s actually where my main character in my in-progress novella Never Kiss a Stranger lives), and was very sorry when they moved further uptown. Paul and I used to have a lot of fun looking for costumes and other home decor in the numerous thrift shops on Magazine; the one for St. Vincent de Paul (at the corner of Robert and Magazine, which eventually closed and became a Vitamin Shoppe; I don’t think the space is currently in use) was amazing. They used to sell handmade wooden tables and bookcases, made by monks in a monastery somewhere in northern Louisiana, and this furniture was not only solid, but it was inexpensive. We still have the bookcases and tables–one of them is my desk, the other is Paul’s–and I don’t think we spent much more than a hundred dollars on the two tables and the four bookcases. We must have bought that all after we moved back here after the year that should be forgotten; we didn’t move much furniture there or back.

But oh, how I would love to get some more of those bookcases. They are sooooo solid…

Plus, putting Valerie in the Irish Channel gives me the opportunity to write about St. Patrick’s Day–which I’ve never done with either of my other series–at some point in the future.

The Irish Channel obviously takes its name from the fact that many Irish immigrants settled there when they came to New Orleans. The Historic Landmarks Commission defines its boundaries as Jackson Avenue to Delachaise Street and Magazine Street to Tchoupitoulas. However, the New Orleans City Planning Commission defines the boundaries of the Irish Channel as these streets: Tchoupitoulas Street, Toledano Street, Magazine Street, First Street, the Mississippi River and Napoleon Avenue.

See what I mean about how confusing the city can be? We can even properly define the boundaries of our neighborhoods. I’ve always considered the Channel to start at Jackson (as does the Garden District proper) and end at Louisiana; with the other boundaries Magazine and Tchoupitoulas.

But I did think having her live so close to Louisiana Avenue–between Seventh and Harmony–would put her right smack dab into the heart of that neighborhood and in walking distance of practically anything she might need. I wanted her to be able to be able to do her errands most of the time on foot, because that also (in my mind) cemented the sense that it was a neighborhood and a community, if that makes sense? And once I’d picked where she lived, I was able to start building her community around her.

But that is a tale for another time.

I love these kinds of double houses!

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.