Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Cynthia Baxter, one of our most prolific and delightful cozy mystery writers, has outdone herself with her most recent offering, a delicious confection titled “Murder with a Cherry On Top.”
As a longtime fan of Baxter’s work, I have read many of her books, most notably ones in the Reigning Cats & Dogs series (“Dead Canaries Don’t Sing,” “Hare Today, Dead Tomorrow,” “Who’s Kitten Who?” and “Murder Had a Little Lamb”), Murder Packs a Suitcase series (“Murder Packs a Suitcase”), as well as “Temptation,” a fascinating and wicked stand-alone novel (written as Cynthia Blair). They are all truly entertaining works, with fun and engaging heroines who are smart, independent and wholly original.
In her latest outing, “Murder with a Cherry On Top,” the Three Village resident sets us down in the fictional Wolfert’s Roost, a small town nestled in the Hudson Valley. Here, the central character, 33-year-old Kate McCay, has come back to her hometown. Prior to this, Kate had been a public relations director at a large New York City firm. Returning to take care of her beloved grandmother, she has embarked on a new venture, namely being proprietress of the Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe:
“After all, there are some things only ice cream can fix.”
Her love for the dessert is rooted in her childhood. She has memories of her father taking her for her third and fourth birthdays for ice cream. By her fifth, he had passed away. When she is 10, her mother dies, leaving Kate and her sisters to live with their loving grandmother:
“Then Mom passed away the summer I turned ten. Grams suddenly found herself playing the role of mother. She knew how devastated my sisters and I were, and to help us all cope with our confusion, our anger, and our intense feelings of loneliness, she did her best to keep our lives as much the same as they had been before. A big part of that was to keep our family ice cream addiction going, since it was one of the easiest and most obvious ways of linking us to the past and moving ahead with our lives.”
In Kate’s world, ice cream is deeply connected to love and caring and she brings this to her new found vocation. She delights in the work, creating the traditional flavors along with signature choices such as Peanut on the Playground (laced with jelly), Honey Lavender and Avocado and Carrot Cake. (The detours describing her frozen sweets add to the fun.)
After being open only a week, her childhood nemesis and unreformed mean girl, bakery owner Ashley Winthrop, announces that her store, Sweet Things, will begin carrying ice cream. As the bakery is directly across from the ice cream parlor, this drives Kate into a public confrontation with Ashley. Soon after, Ashley is discovered murdered and the police see Kate as a possible suspect.
Kate embarks on her own investigation, which has some wonderful twists and turns, building up to a genuinely surprising but nonetheless believable climax. At its height, the mystery becomes something deeper and eventually much more complex.
An element of the book that is particularly effective is that Kate actually uses her business to solve the crime. Unlike in many mysteries where the characters seem to have insights they couldn’t possibly have, here there is logic to her approach. She utilizes her occupation to provide her with insight as well as opportunity. She cleverly uses the collective love of ice cream as a means to certain ends. And, even as she is pursuing leads, she still is thinking about the growth of her new undertaking.
In a light-hearted way, Baxter addresses the issue of not just the difficulty in returning home but also the joys — rare in literature, which tends to fixate on dysfunction. Kate is genuinely glad to be back and wholly embraces the chapter ahead of her. She finds satisfaction in her work, a passion and a drive that help her reacclimate to Wolfert’s Roost.
The fact is Baxter is a strong writer. Throughout, she is able to articulate the modern struggle to communicate with wit and honesty:
“I wondered how any of us managed to not look bored or lonely or even uncomfortable in public places before we all had cell phones. Maybe that was why books had been invented.”
Baxter nimbly fleshes out characters who are (or at least initially seem to be) transitory. They are whole people, often created in a few crisp sentences. This is ideal in a mystery where there is the need for a parade of suspects and supporting characters.
We get to know Willow, her childhood friend, who works for her when she’s not teaching yoga. Emma, Kate’s in-search-of-herself 18-year-old niece, comes to live with her and assists in the investigation. Ashley’s sleazy ex-husband and her most recent amour, an egotistical chef, both get creative page time. Kate’s love interest, blue-eyed broad-shouldered Jake Pratt, has a past with Kate that becomes pivotal in the present — but the thorny history never bogs down the movement of the narrative. A visit to a harried mother of three is particularly vivid.
Baxter finds variety even in the rather reviled murder victim as certain pieces of her backstory are revealed, transitioning from the “she-had-it-coming” to something far more complicated. The fact that Ashley is running an illegal co-op becomes a fascinating detail in the tapestry of the crime.
All of these pieces, like the exotic sundaes Kate fashions, are rich in texture, color and invention and make for a wholly satisfying read.
Two nice little bonuses: Each chapter is headed with a “fun fact” from the history of ice cream, with sources ranging from Guinness to the International Dairy Foods Association. The appendix shares a few interesting recipes that are referenced in the book.
This first entry into The Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series is a great one. Grab yourself a bowl of ice cream, sit down and dig in.
Cynthia Baxter is the author of 54 novels. A Three Village resident for the past 25 years, “Murder with a Cherry On Top” is the first book in her new Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series with Kensington Publishing Corp. and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Meet Cynthia at the Emma S. Clark Library’s Author Event on May 6 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and visit her website at www.cynthiabaxter.com.