Book Review: Puzzling Ink by Becky Clark

In Puzzling Ink, Becky Clark's first book in her Crossword Puzzle Mystery Book series, Quinn Carr—crossword creator and part-time waitress—finds a customer dead at her table, face down in biscuits and gravy. With plenty of suspects and a stubborn Chief of Police, Quinn learns that solving murders is much harder than solving crosswords.

Quinn Carr is one of the most authentic and unusual crime solvers it’s been my pleasure to meet. Puzzling Ink is set in the fictional town of Chestnut Station near Denver. A small community where everyone knows your name is so appealing and Clark brings it to life beautifully. 

The town of Chestnut Station was spread thick with creamy sunshine, fragments of music from the marching band settling over the festivalgoers while Quinn walked the few blocks to the diner. She had to detour around a couple of town dogs sprawled across sidewalks, including bloodhound Jethro, the unofficial mascot of the Chestnut Diner.

Quinn, like many thirty-somethings, has a couple of gigs. She’s a waitress at the Chestnut Diner and unbeknownst to most folks, she supplies the local newspaper with a weekly crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzle mystery series is enjoying a moment in the sun, like Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series which has the imprimatur of crossword puzzle master Will Shortz, a contributor to the storylines. 

Being a crossword puzzle creator is a novel character trait, but Quinn is also beset by an occasionally crippling condition, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Her goal last year of being accepted at the Denver police department did not end well. She had a breakdown, ended up in the hospital, and is now living at home, taking her meds (when her dad reminds her). Quinn wants to be independent, but money is needed if she’s to leave home i.e., her tips at the diner. Some of her customers are friendlier than others. Chief Chestnut is not her biggest fan, but he does seem to love her crosswords. Quinn offers him a pencil from “her collection of writing utensils,” but no thanks.

“I ain’t no sissy.” He plucked a pen from her hand with his bony fingers and clicked it at her. 

 

Quinn took it as a dismissal and backed away. Jerk. She knew that crossword enthusiasts prided themselves on their ability to do puzzles in ink without making mistakes that needed to be erased. But most of them weren’t so snippy about it.

Surly customers notwithstanding, Quinn’s happy place is turning an idea for a crossword puzzle into reality … and not being judged for her choices and foibles.

Crossword puzzles never judged you. Unlike the people who thought they knew all about you simply because you were in your thirties, had to move home with your parents, and needed—needed—to alphabetize their spices before you could continue creating the crossword puzzle for the local Chestnut Station Chronicle.

“The people who thought they knew all about you,” is one person, her childhood friend Rico. He’s part of the Chestnut Station police force and he cares and worries about Quinn, and even flirts with the idea of dating her but they turn out to be better buddies than beaus. Quinn’s parents are fantastic, caring but not smothering (although she can tell that they’re worried about her). Her dad gently but persistently presses the notion that she meet with an OCD specialist while leaving the decision up to her.

Quinn has her life tenuously under control until “a customer ends up dead at her table—face down in biscuits and gravy.” He’s a culinary business associate of Jake, the owner of the diner, and Quinn’s boss. The Chestnut Station police arrest Jake for murder by poisonous mushrooms and lock him up. Guess who’s in charge of running the diner now? Imagine if you will how difficult it would be for a person who wants needs everything to be just so, to switch to cooking/serving/cleaning up a diner. Quinn has always thought of herself as perceptive and intuitive, a good person to assist the police (ahem, Rico) with crime-solving but now it’s urgent. She must find the murderer so Jake can get back in the kitchen where he belongs. Some of her trials and tribulations are hysterical, like the potato incident. 

Suddenly the pungent odor of burning filled the kitchen. Smoke poured from the oven. She grabbed oven mitts and carefully opened the door. 

 

Sabotage? No. Baked potatoes.

 

Silas poked his head into the pass-through. “Everything okay, Quinn?”

 

She stepped aside and showed him the inside of the detonation zone, covered in exploded potato bits, all in varying states of incineration.

 

“Oh dear.” He shook his head. “Didn’t you poke holes in them before you started baking them?”

 

“No. Why?”

 

“So they don’t explode. Everyone knows that.”

 

Quinn glared at him. “Does everyone know how I’m supposed to clean this?”

But Quinn is a quick learner, and she takes the reader along for an eccentric and unexpected ride. It’s fun learning diner lingo à la Jake, like “Adam and Eves on rafts (two poached eggs on toast), Murphys in the alley (hash browns on the side), and several stacks of Vermonts (pancakes).” Chief Chestnut won’t explore any of the promising avenues Quinn has uncovered to prove Jake’s innocence, so she goes to work on a bonus crossword that will subliminally encourage the Chief to open his eyes. Even bloodhound Jethro has a star turn, discovering an important clue wedged in the recesses of the diner’s seats. The customers are irascible, occasionally endearing, and supportive of Quinn’s efforts to man the torpedoes and keep everyone fed while she solves the mystery. I can’t wait to read the sophomore Crossword Puzzle Mystery: Becky Clark is off to a great start.

 

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