Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo
Murder on the Orient Espresso by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2013) is the eighth Maggy Thorsen Mystery and it invites us to consider the most desirable characteristics for that perfect cup of coffee (those of you blessed with a suspicious turn of mind will understand the seven previous titles are all relevant puns). The series in general and this book in particular, all begin with the aroma which alerts the other senses something good is on the way. Then we get to the body, i.e. the feeling the coffee has in your mouth or, if you prefer, Maggy Thorsen together with Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik with a murder victim on their hands. As the process of consumption begins, there must be elements of viscosity as the thick liquid lingers indulgently on the tongue before disappearing into the pit below for absorption into the gut. This delightful sensation stems from the solids produced by grinding and the oils extracted during the brewing leading us to conclude the best coffee, like the best novels, has a balance between sweetness and acidity, producing a rich and complex flavour.
Sandra Balzo has injected lightness into the milk to produce a frothy brew with a sprinkling of wit, humour and a little absurdity to create a slightly nutty aftertaste, the whole concoction leaving me in a mellow and satisfied mood. The aroma builds as we join Maggie and Jake booking into the hotel where the crime writers convention is to be held. The sly observations introduce us to the first evening’s event which is a short train journey in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We meet everyone of note on the bus to the station with their real-world names nicely alliterative to the characters from the novel so we don’t forget who everyone is. Then it’s off into the Everglades in a push-me, pull-you train where alien invaders eat the ‘gators or eat the food the ‘gators would eat before the reptiles can get at them — actually that’s confusing because the aliens are Burmese and African Rock pythons released into the wilds by pet owners who couldn’t cope with the little monsters which were becoming alarmingly big.
With the train leaving the station, we’re off on what should be a three-hour jaunt into the wilderness with the prospect of a murder to solve before the victorious sleuths are allowed to eat the celebratory cake. Except, as is required in books like this which depend on crimes for our heroic detectives to solve, there’s a real life murder with the cake knife — presenting a real challenge to those who wish to eat the cake but have nothing to cut it with save the sharpness of their wit. Such are the perils of those who organise events or conferences for creative people where petty jealousies and major disagreements combine to produce a hopefully only metaphorically murderous atmosphere.
This being a rerun of the Agatha Christie situation of a small group of people trapped on a train, the problem for the author is to decide how rigorously to follow the plot of the original. In this case, there’s a very nice balance with most of the people on the train having a motive for wanting this particular individual dead (so they all did it, right?) while there are wildly inventive moments that completely undercut the spirit of the original. It’s so artfully done: the fact the detective duo might debate whether to call the witnesses into the dining car for interview in the same order as in the novel, simply typifying the delightfully elaborate game being played — like trying to work out how far along the track they are. The other pleasing demonstration of good judgement is understanding the need to keep extended jokes short. Although we pivot rather neatly into a faintly absurd thriller ending, the explanation of whodunnit and why is clear and persuasive. Then it’s all over bar the shouting to the barista for more of the same.
For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Hit and Run.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.