I thought it would be nice to mix things up in these Adventures in Self-Publishing with a gentle disappearance story. Little did I anticipate the red hot Scrabble action we’d get along the way.
Where’s the Beef? (2014) is a between-books short novella from Deb Pines’ Chautauqua Mystery series and features 50-something journalist Mimi Goldman, who has returned to Chautauqua after 16 years to work for the local paper. Having apparently solved a mystery in book 1, she is approached by the owners of the local hotel The Rosebriar when it transpires weekly deliveries of meat have gone missing from the hotel kitchen. The delivery boy claims to have delivered it and locked the door after himself when he left, but within an hour there is no sign of the delivery anywhere in the kitchen, and with no access to the room it’s a mystery how it could have vanished.
As mysteries go, this one has several problems. Overlooking that this story is so short it doesn’t begin until 12% of the way into the book, the solution here — and I’ll not go into precise details — is one that relies on the proximity of things to other things, and there is no way from reading this even with minute care you’d deduce the relative proximity of any of the relevant objects. Deb Pines is very good at detailing the thoughts and feelings of Mimi, but when it comes to describing space her writing becomes so indistinct that it sort of beggars belief.
To the left, was a wall with a stainless steel counter, the biggest workspace. Two sinks. A dishwasher. A fire extinguisher. A pantry with labelled plastic jars.
About eight feet up, along the same wall — that was probably the Rosebriar’s original exterior wall — was a row of one-foot-by-one-foot transom windows.
To the right, were a double-wide cooking stove with six burners, a pantry of food, a refrigerator freezer and what looked like another door.
There’s a piece of information in the above description that would solve the whole thing for even the most basic intellect in a jiffy. The delivery boy comes in, leaves the meat on the stainless steel counter, leaves. Hidden passageways, dumb waiters, all the old tricks are ruled out, and yet someone makes the meat disappear — it’s a mystery only because you’re not told something you should be told, but my main question is this: even if the meat hadn’t been snatched off the counter three weeks out of the last four, why in the hell isn’t it being left in the fridge? It’s raw meat, and surely just leaving it out on the side for an hour is violating all manner of food hygiene standards. No wonder they’re getting unhappy reviews on TripAdvisor.
I can’t deny that there’s a neat piece of reasoning used to justify Mimi’s solution to the mystery, one of those ‘absence of a thing’ solutions that can work very well indeed, but given the complete absence of need for said mystery, and the fact that the reader is given no chance to see how any of it fits together, I suppose this is crime fiction for people who just like being told things. It’s not as outright cutesy-cozy as The Locked Room Murder (2016) from a few weeks back, but it exists in that same strata of fiction for people who say “Do you know any good riddles?” and when you give them one immediately go “So what’s the answer?”. And fine, there are a lot of them out there, but they’re awful people and shouldn’t be encouraged.
Relax, relax, I jest…slightly.
However, the focus in this short story is very clearly not the problem in the title, as it seems much more interested in being a sort of tourist guide to Chautauqua and providing the incomprehensible Scrabble action promised up top. We’ll get to the Scrabble, always put the most compelling bit last, but let’s look at Chautauqua first:
A year-round population of around 400 swells to more than 100,000 people attending events during the season.
Events, you wonder? What events? What sort of events? Well, you’d be interested to know that…
[Chautauqua] began in 1874 as a tent retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers and evolved into a gated community with a nine week summer season of lectures, concerts, religious services and other cultural and recreational activities.
Additionally, be sure not to miss the…
…mini Swiss chalet that Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller built in time to entertain President Ulysses S. Grant, one of nine U.S. presidents to visit Chautauqua.
And if you visit at the start of August, you can take place in…
Chautauqua’s annual Old First Night Run/Walk/Swim.
The 2.7-mile race commemorating Chautauqua’s birthday could be run or walked, as usual, on the grounds on August 3.
In a full novel, these public announcements on behalf of the Chautauqua Tourist Board might not appear so intrusive, but the first 12% of this book is title pages and copyrights, so give me some actual plot. If I want to learn about the…
…amazing 18-mile grey-green carpet, about a mile wide in most parts, stretching between Jamestown and Mayville, New York…
…then I’ll…huh, actually that does sounds quite pleasant.
Yeah, sorry. Don’t know what came over me there. And so to Scrabble…
Mimi answers an advert in the paper for some lonely, friendless soul looking for someone to play Scrabble with. Now, of course, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that he is:
…and attractive forty-something man with thick salt-and-pepper hair, blue eyes, a lean runner’s build and an adorable smile.
The Scrabble action is hot and heavy, so I hope you’re not reading this at work. Open a window, make yourself comfortable, it’s about to begin:
In picking tiles to see who’d go first, Walt got a “C”, Mimi an “L.” So Walt went first.
He opened with a respectable twenty points for playing the word M-I-N-E-R. Then he excused himself to put the burgers on the grill, flip them and add cheese.
After Mimi played F-A-D that also spelled M-A and I-D, vertically (for 18 points), the burgers were done. So they took a break to eat.
I apologise for making things so raunchy, but, woof, you can understand my excitement. In a story whose title is derived from the impossible crime about which it is astoundingly vague, we now have a positive surfeit of detail on matters so staggeringly trivial that it’s almost like I just made this up myself. And worst of all, it’s mostly incorrect.
Firstly, there’s no way in hell that MINER scores 20 points. The first word must go across the central square of the board, so with MINER being horizontal (since MA and ID are vertical) the best you can get is a double letter score for the 3-point M and everything else is worth 1 point: 6 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 10 points. And it has to be like that for Mimi to get 18 points on her go with a double-letter F. Yes, I’m typing this with my Scrabble board next to me. I am furious. [EDIT: it also turns out I’m wrong — the central square that the first word must cross counts as a double-word score, and I had no idea, I apologise]
Secondly, how long does it take Mimi to put down FAD?! Walt gets up to turn the burgers, she puts down three tiles, and the burgers are done?? Like, does no-one in this fucking settlement know how to store or cook meat? The fact that these two are apparently in need of a break after playing two whole words of Scrabble is perhaps a hint that they’re not the sharpest, but there’s no indication of stomach cramps or any other problem from this undercooked meat they’re wilfully chugging down — this book is a public menace.
However, back to the game.
She picked an I, N and G. Along with her stockpiled blank and S, she had the perfect building blocks for a seven-letter word that, in Scrabble, comes with a 50-point bonus.
At her next turn, Mimi played V-I-E for a mealy seven points to dump the V.
Up to this point, we’ve been told the precise words they make, but suddenly she plays VIE which is a six-point word for seven points and so there must be another letter in that word (because that’s how Scrabble works, though this is one of the few rules not — ahem — spelled out to us). Suddenly we get all coy — going PG where previously it’s been X-rated word action — and we’re left hanging. Would V-I-N-E veer too pronographically into the real story here? Also, what happened to that seven letter word? She’s got the “perfect building blocks”, but since you only have seven letters at a time in Scrabble she’s clearly got S, I, N, G, V, E, and __ in front of her — look at those letters: what seven-letter word does she have? And, hell, if you just dismiss three of your letters don’t you always have the perfect base for a seven-letter word? S, N, G, and __. Singing? Sighing? Gastro-? We never find out what that seven letter word would have been, but I’m calling bullshit anyway.
You say I’m getting distracted? Well, this is very distracting. However, this is the second game they play in the book — oho, you thought there’s be just one extended scene of heavy-breathing wordplay non-flirting? — and the coup de grace of the entire thing actually comes in the first game, where Mimi must vie (Ithankyou) for Walt’s attention with another woman called Evvy (a younger woman, no less, the hussy) and a point is made of how seriously Walt and Mimi take their Scrabble. And it ends with this gorgeous moment:
Near the end of what was a close game between Walt and Mimi, Evvy ended up turning the tide. She opened up a triple-word opportunity. And Walt, seizing the opportunity, played Q-U-I-N-C-E for a game-winning 62 points.