Have months of isolation and the prospect of hibernation season left you longing for a winter escape that includes suntan lotion, frosty umbrella drinks, colorful T-shirts, flip flops and fresh seafood? Former clinical psychologist and national bestselling author Roberta Isleib (using the pen name Lucy Burdette) has the perfect cure: a hefty dose of The Key Lime Crime–her latest culinary mystery. When an uber-wealthy pie aficionado persuades the city to host his pie-baking contest, naturally every pie purveyor on the island wants a slice of the deal. For noted Key West magazine food critic Hayley Snow, the situation is anything but sweet, as a fierce rivalry between bakers results in the murder of a controversial new pastry chef. The novel is the 10th in the series.
Writing as Roberta Isleib, the author has also penned two additional series. There are five novels in her golf lovers’ series, featuring professional golfer Cassie Burdette. She’s published three books in her advice column mystery series about psychologist and advice columnist Rebecca Butterman: sometimes “asking for a friend” can prove deadly.
She’s been nominated for multiple mystery writing awards including the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity, and has contributed to three anthologies. She’s active in Sisters in Crime and is a past president of the organization. She’s also part of the entertaining daily blog Jungle Red, which she shares with six other bestselling authors.
Currents: The Key Lime Crime sounds like a novel that was fun to write. Tell us about it.
Isleib: There were three things that triggered my imagination as I started to write the book. First, Key West is very enthusiastic about decorating for Christmas. And there is a conch train that ferries people around the island to look at the best of the lights. One year we noticed a house that had a Santa splayed out on the front porch holding an empty bottle of booze. A sign on the steps said, “Santa may be a little late this year.” I couldn’t help wondering who might be in that Santa suit, and why, and what if they were a murder victim? And my writer brain was off…
Second, I always end up writing about families no matter what I set out to write–extended families, biological families, stepfamilies, and in this case, in-laws. I’d had some readers suggest that they couldn’t warm up to the main character’s new husband. I began to think about that–why he was so reserved, why his parents did not attend the wedding, and what it would be like if his mother made an unplanned visit. And so, she does visit, without warning, at a most inconvenient time. She has turned out to be a fascinating character and I love how she and Hayley are getting to know each other.
Third, Key Lime pie is iconic in Key West and needed to be featured in one of these books! (The last time it came up seriously was in a poisoned pie in the first book, An Appetite for Murder.)
Currents: You’ve said you often base the recipes in your books on dishes you’ve eaten at Key West restaurants. Are you ever lobbied to include certain dishes in your books, and if so, how do you handle this?
Isleib: I do often have fans who write to ask whether I’ve tried a certain restaurant or dish. I don’t consider it a burden to go tasting LOL. My long-suffering husband and I ate our weights in key lime pie when I was writing The Key Lime Crime. We had lots of suggestions on where to find the best KLP on the island—really all of them were good. Right now, of course, we aren’t visiting restaurants except for takeout, but hopefully that will change soon.
Currents: From Rex Stout’s famous foodie Nero Wolfe to Virginia Rich’s The Nantucket Diet Murders to Diane Mott Davidson’s Dying for Chocolate, and now our love of Key West nosh, what do you think explains our passion for combining cuisine and crime?
Isleib: At one point, Hayley Snow’s boss at Key Zest, the magazine she works for, says this about a piece she’s writing: “We’re eager to see how you’ll spin it so it’s not just a list of sandwiches and their ingredients.” And that makes Hayley worry: Did that mean he found my last round-up article lacking? This of course is the challenge of every food writer whether writing fiction or nonfiction–how to write about the food but also make the piece about something bigger.
I try to make sure that food in my mysteries reveals something deeper about the characters who are eating or discussing it. (At the end I include recipes because it seems only fair to provide them after readers have salivated for pages and pages!) But I’ve noticed while reading books by amazing crime fiction writer Ann Cleeves that she uses food and eating to do exactly that–show character and deepen suspense. She is by no means a culinary mystery writer, but I so admire a line like this from Raven Black: “She tried to imagine Mr. Ross, sitting at their kitchen table while her mother hacked at the overcooked meat and picked away at him with her questions.” Doesn’t that make you think of murder?
Currents: You’ve said that transitioning from clinical psychologist to mystery writer was a “pretty natural” transition. Mysteries are basically about understanding and anticipating human behavior. What parts of the career change weren’t as natural?
Isleib: Yes, I’ve often said that writing a mystery is like the work of a therapist: Start with a problem (in most of my books, a murder), and then gradually gather clues until the big picture becomes clear. So, the two careers are similar in that way. The actual writing part was not so natural. Writing fiction is such hard work—it helped that I’ve always been a reader, and a reader of mysteries. But I also took as many classes as I could find, hired expert editors, and practiced. A lot.
Currents: It’s said that art imitates life–without all the boring bits. You’ve written three series featuring keen and observant but different protagonists. Where did each of your main characters and their careers/settings come from?
Isleib: Cassie, the aspiring and talented but neurotic golf professional, came from my obsession with learning to play golf back in the 90’s. Like writing, learning to be a good golfer is very challenging, especially if you start in middle age as I did. I took dozens of lessons, maybe even hundreds, and began to wonder what in the world I could make from that time spent. Cassie was the jewel that emerged from my bad golf game!
Rebecca Butterman is a clinical psychologist living in Connecticut and probably closer to me than any other character. I loved having the chance to showcase the field of psychology and psychotherapy as part of the background in these mysteries. (In fact, I always try to nudge my characters into therapy, but they don’t always cooperate.)
And that brings me to food critic Hayley Snow, who turns to tarot rather than therapy when she’s troubled. She is a better cook than I am, but younger, and both braver and more foolish. When I was casting about for something new to write, I heard of an editor who was looking to buy a series featuring a food critic, possibly with a tropical setting. I love to eat and to talk and write about food, and we were just then beginning to spend a lot of time in Key West, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Since I’ve had more time to delve into the lives and backgrounds of these characters (11 books so far), it’s been great fun to watch Hayley grow and change.
Currents: Some authors who write multiple series occasionally co-mingle the characters, to their fans’ delight. Any chance that, say, Hayley could be critiquing the food at a sold-out, elite golfing fundraising gala, or perhaps Rebecca gets a letter from Hayley’s mother-in-law wanting advice on how to deal with her son’s meddling wife?
Isleib: Interesting you should ask! I was unpleasantly surprised to hear that golf mystery series was ending, so I didn’t get the chance to let Cassie’s fans know about how her life turned out. I got the idea of having Rebecca Butterman accidentally tune into a golf channel on TV where Cassie was sporting an engagement ring and talking about her first tournament victory. That was very satisfying! (I think that was in Preaching to the Corpse.)
Later, Cassie and her new husband visit Key West and there’s a brief scene at the Key West Golf Club with her and Hayley Snow. I confess that I found it harder to write the older characters, as the current set felt so vivid in comparison.
Currents: Once readers finish The Key Lime Crime, they’re going to be demanding another slice. What are you currently working on?
Isleib: I’m happy to say I just returned the edited manuscript for A Scone of Contention to the publisher. Though the characters will be familiar, much of the action takes place in Scotland. My husband and I and several dear friends and my sister took a trip to Scotland in 2019—much of the action occurs in places we visited. Believe me it was a pleasure and a relief to be immersing myself in that magical place over the past nine months of the pandemic!
The book will be out next August. Here’s the dope:
Key Zest food critic Hayley Snow and her groom, police detective Nathan Bransford, chose Scotland for their long-delayed honeymoon, hoping to sightsee and enjoy prize-winning scones. But their romantic duo swells to a crowd when they’re joined by Nathan's family as well as octogenarian Miss Gloria. Nathan’s sister Vera takes the women on a whirlwind tour of some of Scotland’s iconic mystic places as research for a looming book project. But the trip takes a deadly turn when a dinner party guest falls ill and claims she was poisoned. And then the group watches in horror as a mysterious tourist tumbles to his death from the famous Falkirk Wheel, high above the Forth & Clyde canal.
Vera and her friends deny knowing the dead man, but after observing their reactions to the fall, Hayley is not convinced. With one person dead, a second possibly poisoned, and the tension among Vera’s friends as thick as farmhouse cheese, Hayley fears her long-awaited honeymoon might end with another murder. Far away from home, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, eccentric characters, and a forbiddingly gorgeous setting, Hayley must call on all her savvy to keep a killer from striking again and then escaping Scot free.
To learn more about the author, visit www.lucyburdette.com or www.robertaisleib.com and follow her on social media. Also, catch her posts at www.jungleredwriters.com and every other Thursday on Mystery Lovers Kitchen at www.mysteryloverskitchen.com. Follow her at
Facebook.com/lucyburdette and Instagram.com/lucyburdette