“The Body In The Birches” by Katherine Hall Page fits perfectly into the genre of culinary mysteries. The plot puts a lot more emphasis on family dynamics than mystery. This makes for a compelling character study where the food becomes almost a supporting character. The focus is on two families, the Fairchilds and the Proctors, which Page blends together in a complex story of family relationships.
The book opens with a quote from Oscar Wilde, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” Readers are alerted to the two themes of the story, good food and how a family can be torn apart. In this case, the inheritance of a century-old estate becomes the center of the family feud. Surrounding the July Fourth holiday, family members are invited to The Birches in Maine to show why they should inherit the estate. The three in line are Simon, Babs, who sends her proxy, daughter Sophie Maxwell, and Sylvia. It does not take long for the sniping to begin that culminates in the murder of the housekeeper found by Faith Fairchild, the amateur sleuth/caterer and a clergyman’s spouse.
The July Fourth holiday is played out in this small town because Page, who lives in Maine, always sees the Fourth as “a really big deal here. It marks the start of the summer. There is such a sense of history. People do up the holiday with parades, themes, local organization raffles, and booths. It is much like a bazaar. I write stories surrounding this holiday because it is a time when family dynamics really come into play.”
Page hopes that readers get the lesson of the book, “Families need to sit down and talk. My aunt once told me ‘I always told my five children don’t ever not talk to each other.’ I became interested in the inheritance storyline when I read this feature story about how people make decisions about who should be left what in their will. People get emotionally attached to places and objects that represent the person who has died.”
Although Faith is Page’s main character in this series, Sophie Maxwell steals the show in this book. As with Faith she loves to cook and becomes the centerpiece of the family after the housekeeper is found dead. She is intelligent, kind, and caring. Through the sub-plots the author is able to intertwine the characters, since Sophie was the babysitter to Faith’s children, Ben and Amy.
The culinary pieces are presented with enticing recipes in the back of the book and cooking tips scattered throughout the story. The five recipes include an appetizer, main course, and dessert, and are referenced in the plot.
Food plays a role in the plot, with Page putting the actual recipes at the end, “I did not want them to interrupt the narrative. I understand a lot of readers are not interested in the food at all. Personally, I like to read mysteries by food authors like Virginia Rich. I like the way food can define a person or situation, which is why I made Faith a caterer. For me, the recipes are the hardest part of the book to write. I start to think of them as soon as I put the finger to the keyboard. I became interested in cooking a year after I was married when we went to France. It was my Julia Child moment. I ate an Omelet that tasted wonderfully and realized if you want to eat like that you have to cook like that.”
“The Body In The Birches” explores how people will do anything to achieve their goal, even commit murder. Reminiscent of the game “Clue:” who did it, with what object, and where, the Proctor family finds itself in a deadly competition to inherit the estate.
Page gave a shout out about her next book, “The Body In The Wardrobe.” Sophie Maxwell returns as the main character. Page is finding it fun to “write about a younger group of people. I am challenging myself to write something a little different. I hope to give a good puzzle, but at the same time to write descriptive characters and settings. In this next novel Sophie will be married and must deal with a large body count in her new hometown of Savannah, Georgia.”