Still Life in Brunswick Stew

Still Life in Brunswick Stew is the second book in Larissa Reinhart’s Cherry Tucker Mystery series. In the first book, Portrait of a Dead Guy, Cherry Tucker comes back to her home town of Halo, Georgia to set up her portraiture studio and hopefully make a living painting fine art. Unfortunately, the good folk of Halo’s idea of fine art is portraits of their hound dogs, children, and even a champion horse. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to her career, but for Cherry beggars can’t be choosers so she paints what the people want and hopes for something bigger. Bigger comes along in an unexpected way when the Bransons thug son, Dustin, gets murdered and his grieving stepmother decides that she wants a death portrait of her beloved boy. Cherry jumps at the chance to not only make a large commission on the portrait but to also finally get to do what she has been trained for while earning the respect she feels she is due from the people of Halo. The fact that the subject is dead only gives her pause for a moment, but then her artistic juices get flowing and she steals the key to the funeral parlor so she can get the jump on Shawna Branson, her arch nemesis from grade school, who has also been commissioned to paint a likeness of Dustin. Unfortunately someone else wants something from Dustin and Cherry finds herself not only knocked over the head while painting after hours in the funeral parlor, but now she has been accused of robbing the dead, disturbing the peace, and sundry other charges, all of which she vehemently denies. Determined to clear her name, Cherry takes it upon herself to figure out why someone wanted Dustin dead and what they wanted with his dead body. Shawna is just as determined to keep her out of the good graces of not only her relatives and the folks of Halo, but especially the exceptionally hot Luke Harper, Cherry’s on again, off again boyfriend, who also happens to be Dustin’s half-brother and the new deputy in town. Oh, and did I mention Cherry’s equally hot, singer/drummer ex husband who would like to lose the “ex” in front of his name and win Cherry back? Or Max Avtaikan, also known as “The Bear”, the mysterious foreigner who lives in a huge mansion on the outskirts of Halo and runs a gambling game or two on the side that Cherry is convinced is more than just a friendly game of poker between friends?

In Still Life in Brunswick Stew, Cherry and her best friend Eloise have entered their art in the Forks County Arts and Crafts Fair, formerly known as the much-loved Annual Sidewinder Brunswick Stew Cook-Off. Shawna Branson is running the show and everything is going well until a fight breaks out between competitors and Eloise eats six bowls of stew and dies. Eloise’s relatives are heart-broken and beg Cherry to look into her death, convinced that someone murdered their darling. Ignoring the coroner’s opinion that it was a combination of Eloise’s Crohn’s disease and an over-indulgence of stew, Cherry believes there is more to it than that and launches her own investigation. Despite Luke’s warnings to stay out of his investigation, Cherry rolls over his objections and pokes and prods into things best left alone, much to the detriment of her wardrobe and her relationship with Luke. When murder is proven, more lives are at stake and Cherry finds herself in a situation from which she may not come out alive–again.

I wasn’t sure that I liked Cherry all that much when I started reading these books. She isn’t your typical heroine. She’s not rich or gorgeous, nor does she appear to be particularly clever in how she goes about trying to solve the mysteries she keeps stumbling into. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what troubled me about her and it wasn’t until I started reading the second book that I figured it out. Cherry Tucker is awkward. She is prickly and strange and bull-headed and has relationship issues that make the Kardashians look like they are a functional family from a Norman Rockwell painting. It doesn’t help that her mother abandoned her and her sister Casey and brother Cody to be raised by their grandpa. It also doesn’t help that she apparently has the same predilections for pretty boys that got her mother into all sorts of trouble back when she was still living in Halo. Cherry’s boyfriend Luke tries to control her by threatening her with arrest and other dire consequences of the law whenever she interferes, while her ex husband Todd seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum and encourages her to live dangerously. Cherry is the girl in the horror film who heads to the basement to investigate the noise while the audience screams “Nooooooo!!! Don’t go down there!!”. Yet somehow not only does Cherry go down there, she manages to make it back up in one piece, more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the mystery!

Ms Reinhart has the flavor of small town America figured out, right down to the secret ingredient in grandma’s prize-winning apple pie. Having been raised in a small town myself, I found myself laughing over her opening sentences in Portrait, which to me sums up the whole experience:

“In a small town, there is a thin gray line between personal freedom and public ruin. Everyone knows your business without even trying. Folks act polite, all the while remembering every stupid thing you’ve ever done in your life… We forgive but don’t forget.”

To this day there are people in my home town that can look at me and tell stories of all the trouble I got into. Stupid things that I would rather forget but can’t because memory goes deep. The fact that Cherry finds herself going up against those same memories and prejudices resonated with me and I found myself identifying with her, despite her awkwardness and predilection for getting into trouble. Cherry’s heart is in the right place, even if she seems to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still Life ends with a cliff hanger and I can’t wait to see how Cherry gets herself out of this particular predicament!

Pick up Portrait of a Dead Guy and enjoy a laugh or two while you wait for Still Life in Brunswick Stew to come out on the 23rd of May. I highly recommend both books. Enjoy!