BIGFORK – How would you like to be murdered, and live to read about it?
For a price, occasionally, Bigfork author Leslie Budewitz will kill off you – or, at least, a character bearing your name – in one of her upcoming novels.
The price is determined through an auction and goes to charitable causes, and you don’t have to die in the book, you can just be a character in it.
Such semi-macabre fun is possible in part because of the subgenre of crime fiction – the so-called “cozy mystery” – in which Budewitz now works.
She must be pretty good at it.
While there are authors who have multiple Agatha Awards – named for famed English mystery writer Agatha Christie – to their credit, Budewitz is the only one ever to win Agathas for both fiction and nonfiction.
Her latest book, “Crime Rib,” comes out July 1 – there’s a launch party for it Friday at the Bigfork art gallery Frame of Reference – and her latest Agatha came last month, when Budewitz’s mystery debut, “Death al Dente,” won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Both are set in a fictional version of Bigfork called Jewel Bay.
Her teapot trophy for best first novel has company. Budewitz, who is also a lawyer, won her first Agatha in 2011 for “Books, Crooks and Counselors,” a nonfiction book designed to help fiction writers keep their stories grounded in the realities of the justice system.
“I was surprised, because the nonfiction award usually goes to a biography,” Budewitz says. The latest Agatha Award for nonfiction went to Daniel Stashower for “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”
“Books, Crooks and Counselors” reinvigorated Budewitz, who admits she has several unpublished manuscripts in a closet she prefers not to open.
“Several were agented, but were ultimately turned down,” Budewitz says. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep writing.
“But when I wrote the nonfiction book, it got me fired up again. I realized I wasn’t done with the mystery, or maybe it wasn’t done with me.”
Budewitz’s cousin, Laura Childs, is successful in the cozy mystery subgenre and helped Budewitz get started.
Budewitz describes the cozy mystery as “a lighter-hearted mystery.”
“It often has an amateur sleuth, and it’s usually set in a small town,” she says, although small towns such as her fictional Jewel Bay aren’t always required.
“I have a friend who sets her mysteries in the White House, and the White House chef solves them,” she says. “There’s another series set in a coffee house in Greenwich Village. What you need is a number of people together in close proximity, and a murder that upsets their community order.”
If you’re not a reader, but a TV viewer of a certain age, think “Murder, She Wrote,” and you’ll have a good idea of the cozy mystery.
Violence and sex are downplayed, analytical skills are not, and some other theme, usually relating to the main character’s job, is also emphasized.
In Budewitz’s books, that’s food, and her novels end with a section of recipes from dishes that worked their way into the story – in “Crime Rib,” they include Huckleberry-Morel Tenderloin, and Erin’s Two Bean and Pesto Salad.
Erin would be Erin Murphy, Budewitz’s amateur sleuth.
Like many Montanans – including Budewitz, who grew up in Billings but went to college in Seattle and law school at Notre Dame before coming back to Montana – the fictional Erin Murphy moved away at some point, but then returned to Jewel Bay.
“She’s like many of us who left to see the wider world, and couldn’t wait to get home,” Budewitz says.
Murphy comes back to take over the family business, the Glacier Mercantile, once Jewel Bay’s only grocery store but now trying to adapt to the presence of a supermarket in town by specializing in locally produced foods.
Murphy spearheads efforts to kick off Jewel Bay’s summer season with a new festival, but it’s threatened when a former “Merc” manager is found murdered in an alley behind the store on the eve of the event in “Death al Dente.”
“Think the alley behind the Garden Bar,” Budewitz says of the real Bigfork, “and you’ll know where we’re at.”
In the new book, “Crime Rib,” a top-rated TV cooking show arrives in town to feature a steak grill-off at the festival between Jewel Bay’s top chefs. When one of the chefs is murdered, it’s up to Murphy to figure out what happened before the tourist town’s reputation is ruined on national television.
Murder is, of course, serious, Budewitz says, but fiction writers can have fun when the homicides are made up.
The idea for auctioning off character names came when a friend who helped with the Bigfork launch party for “Death al Dente” “asked me if she could be killed in a book,” Budewitz says.
A character with the name of former Bigfork resident Christine Vandeberg shows up in “Crime Rib” and will be murdered in the third book of the Erin Murphy series.
Meantime, Budewitz decided to help the local Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival by letting it auction off the right to a character name; part-time Bigfork residents Dean and Jamie Beckstead won out last year, and “J.D. Beckstead” will also materialize in an upcoming book.
A similar auction, benefitting the guitar festival, was held Friday night. Budewitz has fun with character names no matter what – there’s one called Jay Walker, for instance.
“People do that to children,” Budewitz says. “Word play in these books is fairly common.”
When her three-book contract with the Berkeley Publishing Group is fulfilled – a third featuring Erin Murphy is due out next summer – Budewitz is already at work on a new series.
It’s set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and features a spice shop owner, Pepper Reece.
Budewitz already knows what she wants to call the first book: “Assault and Pepper.”