Hawai`i/California Author Leslie Karst
I first met Leslie in March at Left Coast Crime in Honolulu where she and I shared a panel on writing mysteries about Hawai`i. From an early age through conversations with her parents, Leslie learned the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients, she says, for writing mysteries. Ingredients is the operative word here, because Leslie writes the Sally Solari culinary mystery series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts. She and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai`i.
Welcome Leslie Karst.
MT: Let’s start with you. You divide your time between Hawai`i and California. How does your background inform your stories?
LK: I’ve lived in Santa Cruz, California since 1974, when I moved there from Southern California to attend UCSC. Falling in love with the place, I never left—until later also falling in love with Hilo, Hawai’i, years later. So when I retired from my job as a research and appellate attorney nine years ago, I started spending half the year in Santa Cruz and half in Hilo.
Although the first few books in my Sally Solari mystery series take place in Santa Cruz, I have started a book in which she travels to Hilo and (of course!) comes across a dead body—being slowly covered over by hot lava. My publisher doesn’t want me to change locations just yet, but I’m hoping that this book set in Hawai’i will be number five in the series.
MT: You have a legal background and have studied culinary arts. Do those experiences enter your stories?
LK: Absolutely. At the start of the series, Sally is an ex-lawyer who’s been sucked back into working at her dad’s Italian American seafood restaurant, Solari’s. And then she inherits her murdered aunt’s trendy restaurant, Gauguin, as well, so she ends up having to work at two different restaurants at the same time. So there’s a bit of law and a lot of food in all the books.
MT: What drew you to writing mysteries?
LK: I think I was mostly attracted by the “rules” that apply to the genre—having clues and red herrings, a certain number of suspects, and a logical conclusion, while all the time playing fair with your reader. (It must be the lawyer in me.) But I also love that it’s a genre that allows for lots of character development, subplots, and interesting settings, which fleshes out the stories and makes them unique.
MT: How would you characterize your mysteries? Why did you choose that sub-genre?
LK: I see my culinary mysteries as falling somewhere between cozy and traditional—I like to call them “snarky cozies.” Since this is the sort of mysteries I like to read, it seemed the obvious genre to choose when I decided to pen my own.
MT: Your main character, Sally Solari, runs an eatery. Why did you decide on that? How does her occupation fit in her sleuthing?
LK: I knew from the start that I wanted to write a culinary mystery, since I’m obsessed with food and cooking and have a degree in culinary arts. You always want your protagonist to face some kind of obstacles, and the restaurant business—which is exhausting and difficult—seemed perfect for this. But in addition, the restaurant business also brings in a constant flow of new characters, and thereby, potential victims and killers!
MT: If your books were made into movies, who would you cast in the roles?
LK: Jennifer Garner as Sally; Brad Pitt as Eric; and Robert Forster as Sally’s dad, Mario. (I can dream, can’t I?)
MT: Marshall McLuhan said that if you don’t know if you will like a book, turn to page 69. If you like what you read there, you will like the book. What happens on page 69 of your latest book?
LK: Page 69 of A Measure of Murder, the latest book in the Sally Solari series: After woodshedding her alto part for the Mozart Requiem, Sally takes a break to fix herself a quesadilla with Irish cheddar cheese, avocado slices, and Tapatío hot sauce.
MT: How important is setting to your stories?
LK: Very. I think of Santa Cruz, California, the setting for my Sally Solari mysteries, as almost another character. At the time I arrived there in 1974, it was still a sleepy beach town, home to Italian fishermen, ranchers, retirees, and summer vacationers drawn by its famous redwood trees and Boardwalk. But over the years, largely because of the advent of the university in the late-1960s, Santa Cruz has experienced profound changes, and these days the town is teeming with hipsters and hippies and urban professionals. And along with these newcomers, the food movement has descended full-force upon the surprised old-timers.
As I witnessed (and participated in) the advent of this “foodie” revolution and its effects on our once-sleepy town, it hit me that the juxtaposition of these two cultures would make for a terrific backdrop to a mystery story: What would happen, I wondered, if a local Santa Cruz gal suddenly found herself caught between the world of her family’s traditional, old-fashioned Italian restaurant, and that of the newly-arrived, politically-correct food activists?
MT: What do you do to give readers a sense of place?
LK: Since I live in Santa Cruz, all I need to do is take a walk downtown or along the ocean cliffs to get inspiration for the scenes in my books. And I try hard to make this glorious location play an important part in each of the books. For example, in the next in my series (Death al Fresco, spring 2018), Sally investigates the death of one of the old Italian fishermen who frequent the Santa Cruz Wharf, where her dad’s restaurant is located. As a result, descriptions of the hundred-year-old fishing wharf, and the characters and establishments along it, are vital to the story.
MT: What’s ahead for Sally Solari?
LK: As noted above, the next Sally Solari Mystery, Death al Fresco, will be published in early 2018. Inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, for whom Sally’s upscale restaurant is named, she convinces her ex-boyfriend/best pal Eric to enroll in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when her dog, Buster, sniffs out a body entangled in a pile of kelp.
This next book focuses on the Italian fishing community in Santa Cruz, including the food and cooking favored by the “original sixty families” who emigrated there from Liguria in the 1890s.
MT: What’s ahead for you in your career?
LK: My plan is to continue writing the Sally Solari series, and I’m hoping that book number five will be the one about Hilo, Hawai’i and the body in the lava.
MT: How can readers contact you and learn about your books?
Did I mention that Leslie’s mysteries are not only clever and suspenseful, they are also delicious? Besides clues and red herrings, the reader will find recipes from a master of the culinary arts. Here is a taste (pun intended) of what you will find in Leslie’s latest offering. I hope it whets your appetite for more.
A MEASURE OF MURDER, book two in the Sally Solari culinary mystery series (Crooked Lane Books).
Sally Solari is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. Complicating this already hectic schedule, she joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard—and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident.
Now Sally’s back on another murder case mixed in with a dash of revenge, a pinch of peril, and a suspicious stack of sheet music. And while tensions in the chorus heat up, so does the kitchen at Gauguin, set aflame right as Sally starts getting too close to the truth. Can Sally catch the killer before she’s burnt to a crisp, or will the case grow as cold as yesterday’s leftovers?
“Engaging characters, terrific writing, and a savory blend of musical and culinary erudition…polymath Karst sauces her plot without masking its flavor. And she’s a dab hand with the red herrings.” Publishers Weekly starred review