Attorney and author Leslie Budewitz adds local fixtures and flavors to her crime novels
STORY AND PHOTOS By KAY BJORK
On difficult writing days Leslie Budewitz dons a sweatshirt given to her by her brother Tom and his wife Kathy that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” As Bigfork readers peruse her first crime novel, “Death Al Dente,” they might wonder if she made good on her warning.
“Death Al Dente” is staged in Jewel Bay, “a Food Lovers’ Village” that borrows both the flavor and fixtures of Bigfork as well as other neighboring communities. It is the first of three Food Lovers’ mysteries that Budewitz has been contracted to write for Berkley Prime Crime mysteries, published by the Penguin Group.
Budewitz acknowledges that she might share similarities with the book narrator Erin Murphy, “minus the tattoos.” Like Budewitz, Erin is a Montana native who returns home, freshly energized by time spent away. Budewitz attended college and worked as an attorney in Seattle before returning to Montana with a new appreciation for her home state. Erin also returns to Montana from Seattle, equipped with new ideas and savvy to inject into the family’s century-old business, the Glacier Mercantile. The story’s plot unfolds quickly with the fracturing of Erin’s elaborate Festa di Pasta festival when a former employee is found murdered behind the Merc and the “who done it?” intrigue begins.
Jewel Bay’s geography and reputation as a cultural hub bear a strong resemblance to Bigfork. Even though the Merc is fictitious, it reflects the town’s love for good food, community, and family, and is located next to a tavern, which those familiar with Bigfork will recognize as the iconic Garden Bar. A few more of the book’s locations that ring familiar include the Playhouse, Bigfork Inn, and Wild Mile.
Erin’s cat Mr. Sandburg was inspired by Budewitz’s sable-colored Burmese cat Ruff, who, like Erin’s cat, was adopted when the cat’s original owner passed away.
For an attorney and crime writer, it is all about the details, and capturing those details is most effectively accomplished when Budewitz goes by the classic “write what you know” writer’s code.
Practicing law and writing light, playful mystery crime novels might not seem to have much in common, but Budewitz uses many of the same skills and tools for writing that she has used practicing law: an astute command of language, meticulous research and organization, disciplined structure in her writing schedule, and knowledge of the law and legal process. Her first book, “Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure,” directly employed her legal expertise. The writers’ guide won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction and was nominated for the 2012 Anthony and Macavity awards.
Budewitz is as complex as her mystery novels, serious yet playful, judicious yet creative, bookish yet outdoorsy. Even her expressions change quickly as she talks about her writing – her eyes narrow and her mouth is held in a straight line while she contemplates a question and then her face bursts into a broad smile and sparkling eyes when she shares a humorous tidbit in her book or an incident that draws from her life experiences.
After practicing law for nearly 30 years, writing has brought a welcome addition to her life that allows her to hit the reset button for creativity. Now on writing days she can trade her business suit for something more comfortable and spend the day with fictitious people doing things that she made up. “I wouldn’t want to wander inside my head without a good flashlight,” she said.
An imaginative and precocious child, she learned to read and write early and began to ensure her literary immortality at 4 when she literally wrote on her father’s desk – one of those ‘50s desks with a faux finish that didn’t allow for resurfacing. An active imagination bubbled through an imaginary brother “Baby John” and in the plays she wrote with a neighbor and then manipulated other neighborhood kids to act out. Words continued to be at the center of her life as she won a poetry contest in seventh grade, worked in a bookstore in high school and studied English and philosophy in college before earning a law degree at Notre Dame.
She enjoyed the stimulation of urban life in Seattle until what she mysteriously calls (like a clue in one of her novels) “a happy accident” occurred and led her back home to Montana. She practiced employment law and civil litigation, but also continued to write fiction. Several of her short stories were published and other ideas swirled around in her head, including intriguing ideas for mystery novels. These two worlds merged when she wrote her first book, “Books, Crooks & Counselors,” which covered 169 topics about criminal and justice systems in an easy-to-read Q&A format. The book-writing process and the Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction catalyzed and solidified her passion for writing.
Her first novel, “Death Al Dente,” was released in August 2013 and became a Barnes & Noble national bestseller and reached No. 11 on the mystery list. The next book in the series, “Crime Rib,” is scheduled for release in July 2014 and Budewitz has already been contracted to complete a second series based on a Seattle Spice Shop. She recently wandered the streets of Seattle with her ideas and sketchbook to complete research for the series’ first book, “Spiced to Death.”
An offshoot of Agatha Christie novels, cozy mysteries sound like a bit of an oxymoron. Budewitz explains that the purpose of cozy murder mysteries is to entertain: “A light read you can read in the bathtub.” She wants her readers to feel fully engaged when they read her books. By buying and taking precious time to dive into her book, she says readers are trusting her to make it worthwhile.
The current book series is aimed at food lovers as well as mystery lovers with many of the details and highlights focusing on delectable dishes. So even as the mystery unfolds and the suspense builds, readers might find themselves putting the book down – to find something to eat.
Budewitz says that even though the plot revolves around the murder, punctuated by loads of good food, the story reflects small town dynamics and loyalties and some basic societal structures. Murder disrupts social order, the heroine solves the mystery, justice is served and order is restored. Budewitz notes, “Ultimately it is about community.”
The writing project itself has also been about community for Budewitz. She tapped into local expertise to ensure the accuracy and realism of her book and had fun sharing the process with locals who, after reading the book, have continued their own sleuthing trying to figure out who and if the book’s characters have a local model. She enjoys the guessing game, but says the characters are fictitious.
With looming writing deadlines she is frequently glued to her desk at home with her cat and husband Dr. Don Beans, who combines his acupuncture business with his own creative ventures as a musician. Research, book promotion and her work as an attorney pull her back into the “real world,” providing good fodder for her books as well as balance in her life.
Writing seems to agree with Budewitz. who has found that she is healthier and happier as she spends her days creating her next set of characters, settings, and plots. She hopes that she can return the favor by writing books that provide an enjoyable escape for her readers – so they might be a little healthier and happier, too.
A TASTE OF JEWEL BAY
Leslie Budewitz’s Food Lovers’ mysteries are sprinkled with oodles of noodles because her characters Erin and Fresca are of Italian heritage. She not only includes heaps of food references throughout the book, she also includes a collection of recipes so that you can create your own Festa di Pasta. Here is a sample excerpted from Death al Dente, published by Berkley Prime Crime.
Fresca adds sausage to this classic. Some cooks use only prosciutto; others substitute pancetta or American bacon.
¼ pound mild Italian sausage
¼ pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
3 eggs, well-beaten
½ cup Parmesan, grated pepper
8 ounces spaghetti
additional grated Parmesan for serving
Bring salted water to a boil and start cooking the spaghetti.
Chop the sliced prosciutto. In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add the sausage and half of the chopped prosciutto and cook, stirring, until the sausage is lightly browned and prosciutto is curled, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining prosciutto.
Drain the pasta well and add it to the meat mixture. If you’d like to be dramatic, a la Fresca, transfer it to a large bowl and complete the operation at the table. Otherwise, finish it in the pan. Add the remaining butter and parsley to the pasta mixture; mix quickly to blend. Pour in the eggs; quickly lift and mix to coat the pasta well. Stir in the 1/2 cup Parmesan and a grind or two of pepper; mix again. Serve with additional Parmesan in pasta bowls.