It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most unpleasant character in any murder mystery typically ends up dead. The cozier the mystery, the truer this adage becomes. And the more hobby-based the mystery is, the cozier it tends to be…so welcome to Murder Brewed at Home (2015).
Madison Darby, CEO of Darby’s Microbrewery in Smalltownsville, Americanstate has already solved two crimes (this is the third and, as far as I can fathom, final entry in the series) and so when a beer tasting at her friend Candace Young’s house can’t get underway without Candace’s objectionable husband Kyle sticking an oar or two in…
“[I run] every night without fail. Call it medicine.”
“It’s a religion,” said Candace, “not an exercise regimen.”
“And some of us could benefit from it,” said Kyle.
“You can insult me all you want, I wouldn’t run in this [downpour].”
“You don’t run at all. All I’m saying is that you’ve, you know, put on a few pounds since we’ve been married.”
…it’s only a matter of time before he’s found dead behind the locked door of his study. And you will be shocked — shocked! — to learn that Madison is in a relationship with the police officer investigating the crime, giving her carte blanche to be in all the places she needs to be, while also wondering a lot if her heart is in the microbrewery business or whether she’d be happier setting up as some sort of investigator. It’s hokey, it’s cozy, it’s the exact sort of mystery you’d expect from looking at the cover…but it’s also got some good ideas along the way, even if it doesn’t quite make the most of them.
“Tell me about the beer!”
First, though, that locked room:
“The door was locked from the inside.”
“I know,” I said. “I was there.”
“And did you examine the window?”
“Well I did. It was sealed. Painted shut. From the outside, there’s a steep drop to the ground. The rain’s made a lot of muddy ground down there. No footprints whatsoever. I checked it out.”
Add to this the fact that the four women present in the house at the time were all together when they heard the body fall to the ground, and had been out of the house in a group for the preceding couple of hours, and that the doorknob was that sort that “if you locked it with the door open, the latch stuck, preventing you from closing the door,” so that the door “had been closed first and then locked from the inside”. So even if Kyle had been poisoned — and he had, since he’s dead without a mark on him — there’s simply more to it than might first be expected.
The care gone to provide the lockedness of the room is important in understanding the appeal of this type of mystery to many of us, because the richness of tropes in this subgenre sets us prognosticating with regard to the many ways this alleged “impossible” crime could have occurred. The game is for the author to catch out the reader, knowing full well that any hint of anything about the room is going to be jumped on and examined in four different ways before the end of the sentence containing it is reached. Your typical murder mystery can hide clues about times and killer much more easily, because the reader doesn’t necessarily know what they’re looking for — I remember one in which a character having a particular pet was the solid giveaway clue. But any mention of the room or setup therein is going to have the locked room reader ready, knives out, to catch the hint and lay bare its workings.
The only real clue given is a small wet patch on one of the rafters, and the fact that Kyle — a meticulous man, down to his insistence on the difference between who and whom apparently being a character flaw — is still dressed in his soaking running gear. A nice piece of GAD-worthy clewing with regards the inevitable suicide vs. murder discussion is about as fair as things get, because the various solutions to these elements are…disappointing. Not only is a key piece of narrative fact overruled, it’s done so in the most hand-wavey way possible, the sort of thing the Sexton Blake canon would squint and purse its lips if asked to use, and so it turns out the locked room, the rain outside the window, and the steep drop ain’t even a hill of beans.
The way the body is made to appear alive by having fallen to the floor is actually pretty neat, and uses the surrounding circumstances very well — the sort of principle, it spoils nothing to say, that Miles Burton would have spun into 60,000 words. And here’s where the difficulties creep in, because this is just one example of some good ideas not quite utilised to their full potential.
The dawn of the Electronic Age has played havoc with the classic mystery — CCTV sees all, internet search history is easily recovered, mobile phones make contact easy, dying messages are virtually a thing of the past. But Murder Brewed at Home takes the use of Kyle’s run-tracking app on his phone and weaves it neatly into the narrative, using it not just as a chance to check where he was but also as an opportunity to throw in a few other speculations about his character (which, disappointingly, go from “potential” to “absolutely rock-solid-bet-your-house-on-it” by the finale). The BBC’s Sherlock got texting and other modern trappings into their update of the classic detective, and Knudson here almost manages the same degree of nifty insinuation (the “anonymous message by email” is — weirdly, given how much more familiar the principle is — much less successful).
We also get a neat little lesson on the use of scytales, and a treatise on the use of a particularly insidious form of poisoning from what I can only assume are in the classic tradition of real life cases turned to fictional ends. And, when the various overlapping plot strands come together — factoring in two more deaths, someone’s holiday to Madagascar, a cigar box mysteriously buried outside a house, and a visit to eBay — Knudson manages to get a surprise or two in by having no qualms about necessarily protecting the sorts of people who are typically well-protected in this style of mystery. Although that may also be why we never got a fourth one of these, since she’s pretty much obliterated the suspect pool, and there are a few too many leaps through a few too many hoops, even if it does all come together far more neatly than you might previously have expected. And the prospect of a criminal mastermind-esque Mr. X overseeing Madison’s progress from the shadows is really, really cool — exactly the sort of threat-escalation the cozy mystery could do with — and I would have loved to see more of that in later volumes. Alas, it seems now never to be.
“Could you ask that leering oaf to be quiet?”
Working against the final product is the sheer indistinguishability of the various cast members — I had to go back and reread some sections before I realised that I’d expunged at least two people from the list of possibles by getting three characters confused for each other — and the way two, like, lynch-pin elements are waved away as the easiest thing in the world. Excusing one by going “Well, maybe they somehow looked alike or someone was paid off” (I’m paraphrasing) is the worst kind of lazy, and there’s an infantilising of the ease with which someone can be induced to commit murder which is rather key to the, uhm, murder that happens herein — fine, make it a tragic case that strikes close(ish) to home, but don’t then go “And then that guy was asked to fully commit and implicate himself in every single stage of a risky murder plot and, y’know, he did” as if someone was asked to carry a heavy suitcase upstairs.
All in all, then, this could have been the start of a promising series for Belle Knudson, but it seems to have ground to a halt with this one. With a little more practice and a little more thoroughness in her setups, this would have been an enjoyable, easy, cozy time with a keen eye on some of the trappings that have tripped up others trying to extend the murder mystery into the 21st century. It’s not far off, and counts as a good swing, but you’ll be hard-pushed to find anyone who insists you need it in your life — even microbrewery fans will find this more head than body.
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