|Maya Corrigan, photo by Joe Henson, NYC|
Maya Corrigan is the author of the new mystery novel By Cook or By Crook, the first in a series. She has taught college classes, written nonfiction, and designed online courses. She lives outside Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your "five-ingredient mystery" series, and for your main character, Val?
A: I wanted to write a culinary mystery series and needed an angle for it. Most culinary mysteries feature chefs, caterers, bakers, or restaurateurs as sleuths.
Lacking any experience as a cooking professional, I decided to write what I knew as a home cook. My preference for recipes with few ingredients suggested a theme for the series.
I went with five instead of four or six ingredients because it works well with the classic mystery setup, which often involves five suspects. Incorporating five suspects allows writers to explore a variety of motives without requiring the reader to keep track of too many people.
As I was developing the character of Val, I read an article by Michael Pollen, author of Cooked. He wrote that as TV cooking shows have increased in popularity, the number of people cooking at home has decreased. The shows idolize celebrity chefs and showcase fancy dishes, creating a mystique around cooking that discourages people from doing it.
The article gave me the idea to make Val a foodie who turns away from gourmet cooking because of her experience with the pretensions of celebrity chefs. She believes they focus more on making food that dazzles the eye than on creating healthy dishes with fresh ingredients, the focus of the cookbook she plans to write. She carries her mistrust of outward appearance into her sleuthing, looking behind facades to uncover the facts and the truth.
Q: Are the recipes in the book some of your own favorites?
A: I began collecting easy recipes when I was a Mom with two part-time jobs and two preschoolers. I also simplified other recipes that had many ingredients so that I could cook fast. After the kids were older, I had the time to make more elaborate meals, but I rarely found complicated recipes with many ingredients worth the effort and time.
The recipes in By Cook or by Crook include several that people have requested after they ate at my house. The roast potatoes are always a favorite for holiday family meals. It’s as close as you can get to a never-fail dish. My mother often made apple crisp. I used her recipe for years, but found I liked a variation on it better, and that’s the one that’s in the book. The rockfish recipe is a more recent favorite at our house. It works for all kinds of fish.
Q: Why did you decide to set the series on Maryland's Eastern Shore?
A: I enjoy visiting the Eastern Shore because of its charming historic towns, its peaceful water scenes, and its cuisine based on local produce and fresh catches from the bay.
It’s a rural area that attracts urban visitors. Golf courses and farms abut each other. The bayfront estates of weekend visitors aren’t far from trailers and tiny houses where locals live. Washington bigwigs bump into watermen on the streets of St. Michaels.
The dynamic between locals and tourists makes the Eastern Shore a great place to set a mystery filled with quirky characters and conflicts leading to murder. My book is set in a fictional Eastern Shore town, Bayport, so that I can create businesses and buildings where I need them.
Q: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers?
A: I’ll focus on two writers I particularly enjoy. Both have long-running mystery series and have avoided the trap of writing to a formula.
The British author Reginald Hill, who died about two years ago, wrote a series of 20 books featuring Yorkshire police detectives. Though I don’t usually read police procedurals, I enjoyed every one of his. Enormously witty and versatile, Hill wrote thirty other books, some mysteries, some not. Once you get hooked on him, you will have a long and happy relationship.
Another writer I enjoy is Nevada Barr. Her sleuth is a U.S. park ranger who tackles crimes in a different park in each book. A lot of series go stale after a few books because the author is tied to a particular geographic area and to a set of recurring characters. Nevada Barr has the same main character, but the change of setting keeps the series fresh and gives readers insights into the varied challenges rangers face in parks around the country.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just sent my publisher the manuscript for the second book in the Five-Ingredient Mystery series, Scam Chowder. My next task is to write a synopsis for the third book. But that’s barely a gleam in my eye so I can’t talk much about it.
Instead, I’ll say a little about Scam Chowder, which is scheduled for publication in June 2015. Central to the story is a rampant crime that is underreported and underprosecuted in our country—frauds against senior citizens. Val’s grandfather has a larger role in this book than in the first one because of the subject matter and because he’s a scene stealer.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A little more about Val’s grandfather. She recently moved into his Victorian house with him. He decides that if she can cook, so can he, but he won’t tackle any recipe that has more than five ingredients. His role in the book extends beyond his connection to the culinary subplot. He also functions as Val’s confidant, foil, and sidekick. Most people who’ve read the book say he’s their favorite character.
Please stop by my website, mayacorrigan.com, for additional information about the Five-Ingredient series and for trivia about food and mysteries.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb