Maybe you know Leslie Budewitz from her tasty spice shop mysteries or the food lovers’ village books. These cozies are full of mouth-watering crime and detection, and I’d be thrilled to have Leslie drop by for those alone. But this spring, Leslie is stepping out in a new direction – full of suspense – with Bitterroot Lake (written as Alicia Beckman). Library Journal says: “VERDICT Beckman paints a gorgeous picture of an idyllic small town. With some paranormal aspects, secrets past and present, and a multitude of murder suspects, this suspense debut is sure to attract readers.” It’s downloading on my Kindle today – release day – and I cannot wait! In the meantime, here’s Leslie!
“. . . And Ladies of the Club:” an homage, of sorts
by Leslie Budewitz, aka Alicia Beckman
Decades ago, I read a book called “. . . And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer. I picked it up in the bookstore where I worked in high school and college—originally published by a small university press in 1982, it didn’t get much attention until Putnam brought it out in paperback in 1984—and I do remember it being popular, despite its size. The paperback is the thickest book on my shelves, beating “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry by about 200 pages. (Pause to check: my mass market paperback is 1433 pages. That’s almost five of my cozy mysteries.)
And I loved every page. It begins in 1868 in a small town in Ohio, when two young girls are invited to join a local book club, and ends in 1932 when the last of them dies. In between, the girls become young women, wives, mothers, widows, and old ladies, but the constants are their friendship and the club.
I thought of Santmyer’s book—published when she was 87—frequently while working on Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut written as Alicia Beckman (coming April 13, 2021 from Crooked Lane Books). The connection isn’t obvious. One’s mainstream historical fiction; one’s suspense. One is set in small-town Ohio, the other on a lake shore in northwestern Montana. Santmyer’s main characters find solace and connection in their “literary society;” my main character is Sarah McCaskill Carter, a new widow in her forties who’s estranged from her oldest and dearest friends, a distance that becomes particularly painful when she returns to Whitetail Lodge, her family’s home on Bitterroot Lake, the last place she, her sister Holly, and their friends Janine and Nicole last saw each other, twenty-five years ago.
Sarah comes to the lodge to help her mother clean it and decide what to do with the property, in the family nearly a hundred years. In the bedroom of the caretaker’s apartment, above the carriage house, Sarah finds a locked trunk she doesn’t recall ever seeing before. When she finally gets it open, she finds photograph albums, photos rolled up so long they’re brittle, a box of letters, and a journal kept by the great-grandmother who died when she was a baby, Caroline Sullivan McCaskill.
And in those letters and the journal, Sarah discovers a history she never knew. Caro, as she was always called, and other privileged women of the young railroad and timber town of Deer Park, Montana, spearheaded a behind-the-scenes effort to help some of the community’s less fortunate women. “The Norwegian woman” who lost everything when the man she lived with burned down their shack and died in it; when others spurned her for “living in sin,” Caro lent a hand and cash. The young woman seduced by a married man who needed money for a railroad ticket back to her grateful parents in Cincinnati. (Ohio! There IS a connection!) The young mother who lost her husband in an accident at the mill Caro’s husband owned and found that the insurance benefits weren’t enough to help her get by.
Women always do that, don’t we? The women in Santmyer’s club helped each other with more than reading material. They helped each other cope with ordinary life and extraordinary tragedy.
My own mother was a mainstay in several Catholic church groups that were so much more than thoughts and prayers. And they didn’t just fill food baskets and wash altar cloths. She actually started a life insurance program for single women in the 1960s, when it was expensive and hard to get. Like Caro, she knew that too many women fall between society’s cracks.
Sarah’s discovery of Caro’s secret history helps her make sense of pieces of her past that she’d never before put together, and it helps her decide what to do with herself.
That’s what women do for each other, isn’t, both then and now, on the page and off?
Thank you, Mrs. Santmyer, for a story that’s clung to my heart all these years.
From the cover of Bitterroot Lake
When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.
Twenty-five years ago, during a celebratory weekend at historic Whitetail Lodge, Sarah McCaskill had a vision. A dream. A nightmare. When a young man was killed, Sarah’s guilt over having ignored the warning in her dreams devastated her. Her friendships with her closest friends, and her sister, fell apart as she worked to build a new life in a new city. But she never stopped loving Whitetail Lodge on the shores of Bitterroot Lake.
Now that she’s a young widow, her mother urges her to return to the lodge for healing. But when she arrives, she’s greeted by an old friend–and by news of a murder that’s clearly tied to that tragic day she’ll never forget.
And the dreams are back, too. What dangers are they warning of this time? As Sarah and her friends dig into the history of the lodge and the McCaskill family, they uncover a legacy of secrets and make a discovery that gives a chilling new meaning to the dreams. Now, they can no longer ignore the ominous portents from the past that point to a danger more present than any of them could know.
Crooked Lane Books (April 13, 2021)
Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in northwest Montana. Visit her website: www.LeslieBudewitz.com, where newsletter subscribers receive a free short story, or join her on Facebook as Leslie Budewitz Author.