What do you get when you take two French chefs, put them in an upscale restaurant on the Maine coast in the fictional town of Crystal Bay, toss in a fair amount of fine wine and gourmet food, and stir it up with a murder — or two — within 24 hours? “Death by Artichoke” — of course!
Writer Abigail C. Houston — better known in these parts as Marie Cleary — used her love of food and her 30-year background as a chef in the Lewiston-Auburn area to whip up her first "cozy murder mystery."
Cleary, who grew up in the Lewiston-Auburn area, moved to Aroostook County 10 years ago. She soon realized: “It’s a long winter up here!” Deciding to keep herself busy during those dreary winter months by trying her hand at writing, she began working on her book two years ago. “I definitely knew I wanted to write about food.”
Only she had no title:
“I gave the title a lot of thought. I had ‘death by this’ and ‘death by that.’ Then I thought, why not write about what you know best and use a food title?” The title of the book finally came “after many months of wracking my brain,” she said. “It just came to me one day. I was fooling around with words and then there it was. All of a sudden I realized there was a perfect match.”
The self-published book — complete with her recipe for the “Death by Artichoke” appetizer cheesecake and lots of culinary humor — was released on Amazon.com in April under her pen name Abigail C. Houston.
Using CreateSpace, the self-publishing services division of Amazon, she and her husband, Dan, (a self-published writer going by the name of Brent Houston, who wrote his first sci-fi novel in 2010), did all the editing and cover art by themselves.
When asked which came first, the actual cheesecake recipe or the title of the book, she said, “Actually it was the cheesecake.” Over the years, this interesting recipe has become one of her favorites, generating rave reviews by guests before it sparked the novel.
Incorporating her Canadian ancestry into her story, Cleary created Gaston and Jacques, the two main characters in the book. They are curious, bumbling chefs who cannot deal with the seriousness of the situation at hand. They make petit fours and delicious cream puffs, which they eat during the stressful search for their missing friends and the murderer. Cleary plans to post those recipes on her blog at www.cozymurders.com. Other characters include Maurice, the restaurant’s saucier, Detective Scott Doubleyew and the local newspaper reporter, Maria.
Cleary’s career in the local food industry began while attending St. Dominic Regional High School, when she worked at the lunch counter at the old S.S. Kresge department store on Lisbon Street. “That’s where it all began for me,” she said. She tried a short stint in the world of hair dressing, which helped her recognize her primary love was food.
Future jobs ranged from working in the dietary department at Central Maine Medical Center to food service director for North Country Associates to chef at several restaurants. “I had the pleasure of working alongside Bill Gillis, who used to own Clover Manor.” She laughed when she fondly remembered him teaching her a lot about seafood, along with the skill of incorporating liquors into her cooking.
As a hobby throughout the years, Cleary developed upwards of 120 muffin recipes. She shares one of the more unusual muffin recipes with readers, the triple banana split muffins, which incorporate all that’s great in the typical banana split — strawberries, bananas and chocolate, topped off with a cherry — everything except the ice cream, of course.
Cleary said her book was somewhat inspired by Jessica Fletcher, one of her favorite TV characters (played by Angela Lansbury) in the series “Murder She Wrote.”
She is happy “Death by Artichoke” is now part of the Maine State Library system, and can be found at the Houlton Public Library and local bookstores. She seems to have experienced great fun in the writing process, and now looks forward to promoting the book. “Writing is so intense, but so much fun,” she said, “But the aftermath is so much more enjoyable,” noting she has a few book signings planned this summer.
At her home in Oakfield, Cleary hosts her Death by Artichoke Society once a month, a book club of sorts, where readers converge to share both great foods and reads.