Cooking the Agathas: A Cajun Christmas Killing by Ellen Byron
It’s uncommon for a cozy mystery series to sweep me away so completely that I want to visit its setting, especially if it isn’t located in an urban area (as I’m very much a city girl at heart). But the Cajun Country mysteries are so evocative in both their setting’s traditions and food that I’m hungry to go visit and see (and eat!) for myself. Add to these delectable descriptions a well-paced and well-plotted murder mystery and you can certainly see why each book in the series has been nominated for a well-deserved Agatha award.
A Cajun Christmas Killing opens with a description of the Christmastime traditions of the small town of Pelican, Louisiana, particularly the bonfires that lead Papa Noel upriver on Christmas Eve. The only mystery currently on the plate of our heroine, Maggie Crozat, is the puzzle of why her dad has been curiously Grinch-like about bonfire-building for the Crozat Plantation Bed & Breakfast, her family’s ancestral home-turned-hostelry. A stress-related trip to the hospital finally induces him to admit that he suspects that a slew of bad online reviews are being used as leverage to oust his twin brother from control of the property group that owns the B&B, thereby wresting control of the plantation from the family itself. The rest of the Crozats immediately go to battle stations and quickly realize that one of their very own paying guests is the man attempting the hostile takeover.
Steve Harmon is the epitome of the worst kind of Wall Street shark, and he’s more than happy to rub his wealth and power not only in the faces of Maggie’s family but also of any Pelican residents who get in his way. When he’s found stabbed to death at Maggie’s workplace, the Crozats become prime suspects. Ordinarily, this would fill the heart of the detective in charge of the case with glee—Rufus Durand comes from a family with a long history of feuding with the Crozats, after all. But Rufus has learned a thing or two from tangling with Maggie’s sleuthing skills in the previous books in the series, and after some clever detecting of his own, tells her:
“Yeah, I thought [it might be your family], but my big old gut doesn’t buy it. If you offed the guy, I could see you marching into Pelican PD headquarters and announcing to anyone who would listen, ‘I killed the SOB, and I’m not sorry—now lock me up.’ I couldn’t see you or your kin sneaking around. Y’all would own your bad ways.”
“That would be classified as a backhanded compliment, but I’ll take it. I’m sure you’re breaking some rule telling me all this. I truly appreciate it.”
“Chère, it’s Louisiana. We only follow the rules we like.”
Maggie laughed. “True. You’re really good at your job, Rufus.”
“Thanks.” Rufus flashed an impish grin. “And you’re pretty good at my job too.”
It’s really nice to see the relationship between the professional and amateur detectives develop from purely adversarial to charmingly convivial. Ellen Byron knows how to write relationships and characters that are entertaining and realistic (even if I did raise an eyebrow at Maggie’s bewilderment as to the reason her sole African-American co-worker, the competent Ione, was demoted in favor of the abrasive but white community college grad, Tannis. You don’t have to be a detective to know why).
Ms. Byron’s keen eye for characterization also extends to Maggie’s rich interior life. Maggie fled her artist’s life in New York City at the end of a disastrous relationship to take refuge at her childhood home. While she’s been dabbling in art since her return, she’s mostly been busy solving crimes and helping at the B&B. When people assume that her artist’s life is behind her, Maggie starts to worry:
Maggie appreciated [the] enthusiasm and was happy to make a new friend, but having the second person in two days assume she was in the hotel business pushed a button. While it was a logical assumption to make, it highlighted how much Maggie’s world had changed since she’d moved back to Pelican. The life she knew as an artist seemed to be fading away. She was starting to miss who she was and wasn’t sure who she was becoming. Maggie wondered if thirty-two was too young for a midlife crisis.
A Cajun Christmas Killing is a mystery novel that works on so many levels. I think a large part of this is due to Ms. Byron sharing Maggie’s artistic eye for detail, whether it be physical or emotional. And oh, the food! Ms. Byron kindly includes five of the recipes for the luscious meals described in this culinary cozy, and while I was very tempted to make the “Holiday Brandy Pain Perdu,” I decided to try something savory instead, with this Louisiana classic:
Note: It’s important to finely mince all ingredients that require it.
3 minced hardboiled eggs
3 minced scallions
2 minced celery ribs
½ cup minced fresh parsley
3 tbsp. minced dill pickle
1 ¾ cups vegetable oil
⅔ cup stone ground mustard (or Creole mustard, if it’s available)
2 tbsp. horseradish
3 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. paprika
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. sugar
2 lbs. cold shrimp, peeled and deveined
Mix together all the ingredients, except for the shrimp. Chill for at least half an hour.
When you’re ready to serve the dish, halve 4-5 avocados and remove the pits. Distribute the shrimp evenly over the avocados, and then top each serving with cold remoulade sauce. (Leftover sauce can be transferred to a jar and stores in the refrigerator for several weeks.)
This was so delicious! The sauce gets mellower and more balanced given more time to chill, and it is almost tastier as time goes by than on Day One. I enjoyed this sauce on buttered bread as well as with the recommended avocado. My only complaint is that it’s a little too oily. The remoulade would have been just as good with half a cup less vegetable oil, though perhaps less authentic.
I really enjoyed this virtual visit to Louisiana, and I can’t wait to see whether A Cajun Christmas Killing wins the Agatha for Best Novel. Next week, we’ll resume our regular culinary jaunts. Do join me!