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Death at Breakfast

Beth Gutcheon

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 16, 2017
Category: Mystery

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I met Beth Gutcheon ages and ages ago, in a college tutorial. I had never been terrified in school before. I was now — of Beth. She had read everything and acted as if that was no big deal.

All these years later, I still feel slightly overwhelmed when Beth Gutcheon is in the room. Nine novels published, a good movie made from one of them, an Academy Award nomination for a documentary she wrote, decades of good work for PEN. And now she’s written a mystery, the first in a series. Like it’s no big deal.

For the first few pages, “Death at Breakfast” reminded me of an eccentric English mystery, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. Here’s Maggie Detweiler, a headmistress recently retired after 23 years of service at a boarding school. Here’s Hope Babbin, her upper crust friend. Here is the Oquossoc Mountain Inn in Maine, just after the end of the summer season. And here is the weeklong cooking class that has brought Maggie and Hope to Maine. Whatever “mystery” occurs, you expect it to be posh and grammatically correct.

Hope and Maggie had taken rooms recommended by Trip Advisor. They looked forward to long walks. Jigsaw puzzles. Apple martinis. And the cooking course given by the chef, “whose food was winning some attention on luxury travel blogs.” All is in readiness for a quiet week. Good luck with that. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Other guests arrive, and of course some of them are gauche. We meet the staff. And there is a death: a suicide, in California, of a Gaga/Winehouse type singer — the daughter of the gauche guest. Ever try to get a rent-a-jet to escape Maine? Such problems!

The desk clerk, on the verge of being fired, quits in a huff, rips off her uniform and stalks off “in her blouse and ragged slip, through which you could see her magenta thong underpants.” There had been hints of style earlier and a sense that Gutcheon wasn’t playing by the Rules of Mystery. Now there were more. The Jigsaw puzzle is of Bosch’s painting, “Ship of Fools.” A lawyer who’s not clever enough to click out of online solitaire when clients arrive. A suicide on a Hamptons beach. The Hotel Bel-Air. The Buckley School. The Maidstone.

Oh, and then there’s another death, this time at the inn. On the victim’s night table: “The Brothers Karamazov.” Who dunnit? The identity of the killer seems obvious. And obviously wrong.

Clever dialogue? Lots. The laconic locals get the best lines. But there’s also pleasure in such high-low lines like “I think your prom date’s reaction will be shock and awe” and “a woman so thin she looked made from bicycle parts.”

The murder — there are some aspects that complicate the investigation and create more suspects. I didn’t guess the identity of the killer, but then, I never do. You might. But it really seems secondary to the pleasure of watching Beth Gutcheon make her characters dance.