Key Lime Crime Series Continues to Offer What Readers Have Come to Love and Expect
As with most of the rest of us, Roberta Isleib is worried about the ongoing pandemic, social upheaval, and the world in general.
But when Isleib is writing as murder mystery author Lucy Burdette about the adventures of Key West food critic Hayley Snow and her new husband, police detective Nathan Brandsford, all of that disappears and the story takes over.
The newest novel in the series, The Key Lime Crime, will be celebrated with an online event at R.J. Julia Booksellers on Sunday, Aug. 9 prior to the book’s official release on Tuesday, Aug. 11. The plot centers around the murder of a pastry chef, key lime pie, and Hayley’s intimidating and entirely too curious mother-in-law, who arrives for a surprise visit. This novel, number 10 in the series, and the next one, will be pretty much what her readers have come to love and expect.
“Include the pandemic? My reaction now is no way. Living through it is bad enough. People read these books to get away from real life,” she says.
Isleib checked in with her fans on her Facebook page, many of whom are, in real life, concerned about and working for social change.
“I asked them should the current situation with police and Black Lives Matter, should that show up in our mystery fiction? I would say overwhelmingly people don’t want to see that in my fiction.”
She says some of her readers were afraid she was going to turn the Key West police into “bad cops.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” she says. “Because I think they have a good thing going on down there. Unusually good, in real life. So unless it organically comes up in the next story...I’m going to stick with the cozier, lighter mysteries.”
Open to Change
Isleib’s plan to stick with what is working doesn’t mean she’s not open to change. In fact, the next Key West mystery, due to be released next summer, will be set, for a large part of the story, somewhere other than Key West.
Isleib is also hard at work on another novel, one that has been very challenging for her to write, one that is completely different from the Key West mystery series.
And, she has something a little different planned for her R.J. Julia event.
She’s invited another author who has a book coming out—another author who also happens to be her sister, Susan Cerulean, who, in addition to being a writer, is a naturalist and activist. Cerulean’s new book, a memoir called I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, published Aug. 1, combines her work on behalf of the embattled natural world and endangered nesting shorebirds such as least terns and American oystercatchers, while she also caring for their beloved father, who was suffering from dementia. She tackles this idea: In the face of all the world’s overwhelming problems, what does it means to help care for or save a single life?
“She’s my older sister by 11 months. And this is her memoir. She is a nature writer, a wonderful nature writer, and this is about the time when our father had Alzheimer’s and she was the primary caregiver,” Isleib says. “A lot of our family stuff is in there...She doesn’t skate along the surface, my sister.”
Joining them will be Hallie Ephron, The New York Times best-selling author who also worked for 12 years as the fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe. Ephron will be interviewing the sisters.
“Sue and I have such a good relationship. And we write in such different arenas, there’s not a lot of competition. There’s not a lot of competition,” Isleib says.
Registration for the event is available at rjjulia.com on the events tab.
Managing a Murder, Mother-in-Law
Isleib says she’s looking forward to talking about her most recent Key West mystery and how Hayley Snow manages both the murder and the relationship with her new mother-in-law.
“That visit creates a lot of the tension. She’s intimidating and a very accomplished woman,” Isleib says. “She ends up getting involved in solving the mystery with Haley for reasons I won’t say, because it will spoil it.”
She says that the appearance of the mother-in-law in the story allowed her to delve more deeply into the backstory of Hayley Snow’s new husband.
“It’s interesting because a lot of people don’t really know her husband really well,” she says. “This is a way of showing a lot more about where he comes from, and, possibly, why he is the way he is.”
Also making an appearance is Isleib’s adopted yellow tiger cat, T-bone.
“I adopted him from a pound down there” in Florida, she says. “He’s on the cover. The whole finding him in the humane society is a scene in the book and he comes home to live with Miss Gloria,” another character in the novel.
The following novel in the series, the 11th, is due to the publisher in September and likely will be released maybe in July of next year. Isleib’s about two-thirds of the way through writing it and she says Hayley and her husband finally get to take their honeymoon. They go to Scotland. But there’s a mystery in Key West before they leave and, so far, “the so-called honeymoon is not turning out so well.”
Isleib picked Scotland because she and her husband went there last summer.
“They’re going where we went,” she says. “It’s fun to be reliving it right now, when we can’t go anywhere.”
‘I Can Imagine Writing More’
The 11th book in the series will mark the end of her current contract.
“After I turn this one in, we’ll see where sales are with Key Lime Crime and the publishers will determine if it makes sense to buy more,” she says. “I can imagine continuing to write more, if they are interested, because it’s fun for me.
Her agent also is looking at another of her books, a work of women’s fiction that focuses on a psychologist, which was Isleib’s first career.
“It’s about a woman who gets a job at the Yale Psychology Department, competing with three other psychologists for a tenured position. At the same time, she’s publishing a book on happiness. It’s a self-help book on happiness,” she says. “And the people in the department hate the book.”
The novel is character driven, supported by a mystery about who in the department is sabotaging her.
“I hope it sells,” she says. “I’ve been working on it forever.”
She says her agent and an editor she hired keep telling her to go deeper.
“Why is she choosing that? And what is she thinking and feeling? You can’t skate along the surface,” she says. “It’s been a good challenge.”
With that novel, and her other work, she knows she also is dealing with a changed world when it comes to publishing.
“The whole business is in such an uproar,” she says. “Many of the bookstores and libraries are still closed. How are you going to get the books distributed?”
Then there is the likelihood of an extended recession due to the pandemic, and many people who are suffering from economic troubles.
“Do people even have enough money to buy books,” she asks, when they might be struggling to pay for food and the rent?
But she says, for those who can, it feels like people have calmed down enough to read.
“I know I am,” she says. “It’s how I’m surviving. I’m reading lighter things. And I’m reading a book about racism through our church in Key West.”
The book on racism is called Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.
“That’s not in the least bit light, but if you’re willing to stick with it, you will hear a detailed history about where the ideas of racism come from,” she says.
She’s also reading The Bright Side of Going Dark by Kelly Harms, This Won’t End Well by Camille Pagan, Always the Last to Know by Kristan Higgins, and A Happy Catastrophe by Maddie Dawson. She’s looking forward to reading Paris is Always a Good Idea by Jenn Mckinlay and Things you Save in a Fire by Katherine Center.
“And I’m addicted to Ann Cleeves’s mysteries. “I guess you could conclude that I don’t mind characters struggling, but right now I crave happy endings!”
With all her love for happy endings, she says she is tuned in to the way the world is changing, for better and for worse. After our conversation over the phone, she wrote this in a follow up email:
“One of the more interesting things I thought of after we talked: one of the themes in the Key Lime Crime has to do with the question of who owns a beautiful vacation spot? Who really belongs? Key West struggles with that, as do other places that people visit and fall in love with. Paris. Hawaii. Nantucket. And so on,” she writes. “The pandemic has shifted and intensified the question of who should we shut out in order to protect ourselves, and what’s left when the visitors no longer come?”
For readers who are new to Isleib’s work, she recommends starting at the beginning with An Appetite for Murder: A Key West Food Critic Mystery, and working through the early books, most of which are now available in paperback. Or, readers can just dive in to the latest.
“I try to write each book so that the story stands alone,” she says. “But if you like following characters, start at the beginning.”
The latest book, like the others, includes recipes. In this case, of course, key lime pie is included. It has a graham cracker crust. It isn’t green. And it has a meringue topping.
“I have to say my husband and I tried just about every pie in Key West writing this one,” she says. “I’m sure we had 12 different pies. At the end of it he said, ‘You know, I have never really liked key lime pie.’ John Brady. He’s such a good sport.”
Isleib took a key lime pie making class as part of her research for the book, and scenes from that are in the book.
“A couple of my fans went with me and we had a lot of fun,” she says.
Glad to Be Here
Isleib says she’s glad to be back in Madison.
“Our governor in Florida is an idiot. He’s going by politics and not by science,” she says. “We’re seeing the results of that now, which is heartbreaking.”
She says she doesn’t know when she’ll be heading back to Florida.
“We hope to go back. Yet, we would be going back at the end of October or the beginning of November. We have a whole set of friends down there and a life down there. I’m president of friends of the library, and a whole schedule of what we hope to be doing,” she says. “But, who knows? We just have to not think too hard about that right now and keep moving.”
She says writing is always hard work, and that it was particularly hard as the world changed.
“Ive always been able to get out of my outside head and get into my inside head,” she says, but this time it was harder.
But she knew that what she was writing was just what some people need right now at the end of the day, when their work is done, when they’ve turned off the news, the kids are finally in bed, and the worries of the world are a nighttime away.
“People want to read things like this. I know for the first couple of weeks, I was too anxious to do anything but read the news, but then I said I don’t want to look back on this and say I wasted three months of my life,” she says. “So I said, ‘I might as well be writing.’”