Fresh Meat: The Body in the Birches by Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Birches by Katherine Hall Page is the 22nd cozy mystery in the Faith Fairchild series set in Maine (available May 12, 2015).

Some books make you hungry as well as intrigued. Katherine Hall Page is clearly a master at making her readers crave food while solving a murder, because The Body in the Birches is the perfect cozy mystery for the food lover. The integration of the food in the way the exposition unfolds is excellent. The mystery itself, a slow building suspense that leaves you guessing until the last possible moment, fits perfectly with the relaxed Maine setting of the book. The Body in the Birches is just the mystery you want with a hot summer day – and a plate of great food. 

Caterer and amateur sleuth Faith Fairchild is spending the Maine summer on Sanpere Island enjoying her family and friends. With her son getting his first job at a local restaurant and her daughter clearly becoming a teenager, Faith is starting to come to terms with just how much has happened in her life. She has also come to appreciate the relative joys of her family and how they stay the same even if they change. As Faith and her husband wait for their house to be redone, they stay with friends in a house known as The Pines close to a grand family summer home: The Birches.

Sophie Maxwell is one of many in the Proctor family. All of her summers have been spent on Sanpere with her Aunt Priscilla and her Uncle Paul, as well as various members of her extended family. Aunt Priscilla’s death has left the family scrambling to know about her last wishes regarding the family summer home, The Birches. Because Paul married into the Proctor family as a second husband, it’s known that Priscilla wanted to leave The Birches to a blooded Proctor – the real question is who.

As Faith and the rest of Sanpere look on, the Proctor family of The Birches is given a challenge. Paul must decide which Proctor family member to leave the home to, if any family member at all. Sophie and her mother, Babs, know that they’re the only family members that will actually care for the house out of more than just greed, but her posh cousins, aunts, and uncles have other ideas. The Proctor family divide creates family tensions that make the atmosphere on the island heated. When someone is murdered soon after Priscilla’s will is read, Faith and the rest of Sanpere become embroiled in something much worse than a simple real estate dispute.

With The Body in the Birches, readers get a hard look at the dysfunction of a family that is dramatizing a real estate dispute. Sophie is the primary character in which Page depicts this family, showing them for their humanity and their privileged over-the-top natures. The narrative becomes equal parts comedic and dramatic as this thread frames the larger mystery of the book. Instead of making the mystery a huge part of the dispute, Page actually frames it as something that germinates slowly while the dispute progresses, leaving readers unaware of just how intense the mystery becomes until later in the game.

What I liked about this is that I felt like I got to know the large cast of characters before anything happened, but I also felt like there was an event dramatic enough to encapsulate a murder mystery. Page’s style tells you a lot of important information and a lot of human information about the characters at play in the story. That style made me much more invested in the events going on surrounding the mystery, as well as the mystery itself. It also provided a lot of natural misleading moments and red herrings without feeling overly constructed.

“Why is it here now? The car?” She was tempted to add, and you.

“Not that it’s really your concern, but I’m pretty fond of Paul and offered to bring it up for him and drive him around this summer – I’ve never been up here – plus do anything else for him he might need. I have a little free time for the next two months and I thought he could use my help.”

Your help from protecting his wife’s family, Sophie thought, before another idea entered her mind. Could Paul leave The Birches to anybody? Or was Aunt Priscilla specific that it be a Proctor descendant?

Scenes like that show just how good Page is at making the small things count without artificially attempting to build up the suspense of the narrative. Coupled with that, I thought Page made an interesting choice in having Faith play more of a side role in this installment of the series. Faith is considered an amateur sleuth, yet her sleuthing in The Body in the Birches is more limited. On one hand, I think the sleuthing would have created a more active narrative with Faith, but I enjoyed how the mystery was less about her actively solving it and more about her interactions with her family and friends, and the Proctor debacle as an extension to that.

“It sounds like junior high. Who gets to be the most popular kid’s BFF.” Faith had finished her muffin and stood up. She needed to get the kids downstairs then call over to the Millers’ to have someone pick them up for the breakfast and parade. She wasn’t leaving the phone.

“What I’d do is send the whole bunch of them away, now that he’s read them the letter, and pick a name out of a hat at the end of the month,” Gert said.

“He won’t do that,” Ursula said sadly. “He’s too good. This is what Priscilla wanted, so he’ll carry out her wishes. He’s stuck with them. But I’ll mention the hat idea. If he decides to do it and tells them now, it could save a great deal of aggravation – and his liver.”

The Body in the Birches more than meets the needs of any reader that wants a cozy mystery with stellar writing, a lot of tension, and descriptions of amazing food. Faith Fairchild’s world is one that easily resonates with readers because it’s so comfortable exhibiting the everyday lives of all types of people. I think that readers looking for something satisfying and surprising will be delighted with Page’s latest entry in the Faith Fairchild mystery series.

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John Jacobson is a college student that likes to get little sleep and advocate for LGBTQ/queer social justice.  If he had spare time, it would always be spent reading or watching nostalgic 90’s cartoons.  He’s a coeditor at Spencer Hill Press and has been a part of the publishing community for over five years.  He also writes for Heroes and Heartbreakers.  You can find him there, on Twitter @DreamingReviews, and occasionally on his personal blog.

Read all of John Jacobson's posts for Criminal Element!

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