-One plucky, down-on-her-heels heroine making a new start? Check. Betts Winston dropped out of law school and slunk home to help her grandmother run her country cooking school. Why she dropped out is never explained, but it's implied that Betts just wasn't fulfilled as a law student and only found peace and meaning when she came home to find herself in tiny Broken Rope, Missouri. Fulfillment is the go-to excuse for these cozies when the author needs to explain why Our Hero(ine) decides to leave the big city and settle in a town that time forgot. It's more glamorous than admitting that the plot mule to which our narrative wagon is hitched for the next three hundred pages was an incredible dullard who couldn't hack their chosen career path and washed out after a semester-and-a-half to live with their disappointed parents, who aren't even getting rent out of the deal.
In this case, Betts is the school's resident gofer, though she tries to dress it up by saying she's her grandmother's assistant. Assistant. Uh huh. She stocks shelves, cleans, and does some half-assed shopping, and even those arduous duties fall by the wayside as she "investigates" the mystery at hand. However will her seventy-eight-year-old grandmother--who does all of the actual teaching and student evals--survive without her incalculable contributions?
-One cantankerous secondary character designed to act as an anchor and/or font of homespun wisdom to be spouted forth when the heroine gets insufferably boring? Check, and boy, does this character get a workout, because Betts is bland as institutional gruel. Gram, a.ka Missouri Winston, a.k.a Miz is Betts' crusty, septuagenerian grandmother who runs the cooking school. She's set in her ways and feisty and, according to Betts anyway, the best cook EVER. We'll just have to take her word for it, though, because the only time we see her cook, she sets a chicken breast on fire and nearly burns down the kitchen when she doesn't immediately call the fire department. But totally the best cook. The best.
Because this is a cozy mystery and we have to have a reason for Our Heroine to get involved in the plot and take center stage, Gram is arrested for murder when her friend, Everett turns up dead in the school supply closet. Thus, it's up to Betts to don the cape and save the day. Oh, goody.
-One hunky love interest for which Betts can pine? Check. As a bonus, the hunky love interest is Betts' first love, Cliff Sebastian, The One Who Got Away, and he's also the new deputy, which means he'll be shoehorned into the plot at every opportunity and thereby produce ample grist for Betts' overworked and unceasing angst and self-pity mill, whose machinery should be smoking from gross overuse thirty pages in but somehow chugs along for another two hundred and thirty. You lucky reader, you.
On his own, Cliff would be a good character, a bit one-note, maybe, but this is a cozy mystery, not Othello and one note can make a delightful ditty in skilled hands. Alas for us, Cliff isn't allowed to exist or act beyond Betts' petulant pining or the lens through which she sees him. Despite the fact that Betts left him, and that ten years have elapsed since their last contact, Betts pouts like a preteen when she learns that poor Cliff had the audacity to build a life for himself without her in it. He's married? OH, NOES! HOW CAN SHE CONTINUE TO LIVE IN THE SAME TOWN WITH HIM WHEN HER HEART HAS BEEN POISONED BY THIS KNOWLEDGE!!! He might've had children? OH, GOD, THE SELFISH, UNRELENTING CRUELTY OF IT. WHAT HAS HER LIFE BECOME?
Bear in mind that Betts is thirty years old and has dated several men since their doomed love affair. But never mind that. Somehow, the fact that Cliff moved on with his life is a horrible betrayal. Apparently, Betts, a grown woman ostensibly living in the really world, honestly believed that the man she cast aside in pursuit of her dreams all those years ago would wait for her. This isn't inference, by the by. She says this to her brother at one point(we'll get to him later). And she believes it. I just-
Look, I'm all about the One Twu Wub trope. I've written it. It's emotional catnip for me, and I don't blame anyone who eats it up with a double-fisted spoon. But I've never seen a lovelorn character resent the object of their desire for daring to have a life once they were pushed aside. Yet here we see it on full display and without apology. A grown woman acts like a ten-year-old eno queen at the merest hint that her lost love isn't drinking his life away without her lurve to nourish his languishing soul. It's jarring and repulsive, and as relieved as I was when it was revealed that Cliff was divorced, and that the little girl in his company was his niece, I was also angry because that meant Betts' creepy, inappropriate mooning and stropping was going to be rewarded.
And it is, of course. By the story's end, we learn that Cliff never really loved his wife and has been holding a torch for Betts for all these years. She's pettish, judgmental, stupid as a box of hair, and mercurial. What wouldn't crank up a guy's rheostat? Methinks that two years from now, Cliff will be headed across the county line in that patrol car of his to hide from the paranoid succubus who thinks he's flirting with every woman in town, and who wakes him up in the middle of the night in her room at her parents' house to nag him about why he doesn't taaalk to her. Just eat the gun, Cliff. It's faster.
-One quirky best friend? Check. His name is Jake, and he runs the town historical society, because they've got to have someone in these ideal-life fantasies with access to historical records. Jake is a convenient info-dump repository and sounding board, but has no personality beyond his utility to Betts as a prop for her distorted self-image as a a Good Person.
-One sibling designed to make the protagonist look better by comparison? Check. His name is Teddy. Betts describes him as the family flake and a rake, but I'd rather hang out with affable, flirtatious Teddy than Betts. At least Teddy doesn't think his paramours should never date against after a taste of that heady, incomparable Winston love. And for all her carping about Teddy's purported irresponsibility, he shows a remarkable knack for teaching and organization, and he's not the one who deserts their grandmother during the most important event in the school's calendar to play TBI Nancy Drew with a ghost in the old theater.
-One quaint locale? Check. It's called Broken Rope, Missouri, and it trades on its past as an Old West town as a tourist attraction wherein they run faux old-time saloons and stage gunfights. Everything is modern-day Mayberry in Broken Rope. Everyone knows everyone except when they don't, and since this is a visit to Shelton's own private, wistful Idaho where idiots solve mysteries by accident and get lauded as the hero, there's neither hide nor hair of chaw-chewing rednecks in diesel-spewing pickups with Confederate flags and gun racks in the back or of ratty trailers cum meth labs parked on the edge of some weed-choked lot.
-One dash of the supernatural? Check. Betts and her grandmother can see ghosts. Why? Because Shelton has books to sell. Because why not? Because some part of Shelton must've have realized how deathly dull Betts was and sought to spice up this plodding trudge of inanity with a pinch of the whimsical and otherworldly. Whatever the reason, she gives us Jerome Cowbender, the ghost of an outlaw, who turns out to be the true hero of the piece. Since he isn't the author's avatar, however, he'll fade into eternity and leave Betts to bask in the credit.
-One mystery? Check. As previously mentioned, Everett ends up dead in Gram's supply closet. Turns out he was searching for the treasure of Jerome Cowbender as a lark and half-heartedly searching for a daughter he'd given up for adoption years ago. Unfortunately for him, someone else was looking for it and did him in. So imaginative, I know, but if that doesn't twinkle your toes, we get the tragic tale of Jerome Cowbender, who only became an outlaw to support his love and their unborn child. He had cancer, you see, and wanted to provide for an unwed mother before he carked it and shuffled off this mortal coil. But the sheriff was a better shot and plugged him in the back as he rode out of town with his loot. Woe.
Bonus angst: Shortly after the birth of their love child, Cowbender's lover dies of a broken neck after a fall through a trapdoor during her contortionist's act, and the child is raised by relatives. WOE!!!
I've read worse, but I'm in no rush to read more.