Earlier this month Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Library started something new with her Treadmill Books Reviews. These are books that she reads while on the treadmill. Such books have to fit her criteria of “…. A book has to be entertaining without being too demanding. If I’d rather walk than read, that is not a good book. On the other hand, if the book is so enjoyable that I end up walking extra steps just so I can read another chapter, then that is a fine book indeed.”
Treadmill Books: Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade series by J.J. Cook
Firefighter Stella Griffin is a big city girl—Chicago, to be specific—but after punching out her boyfriend for cheating on her, she takes a leave of absence to set up a volunteer fire brigade in a Smoky Mountain town. It’s been a tough but satisfying assignment, and Stella plans to leave before long to return to Chicago. She’s a bit worried that the all-volunteer department might have trouble staying together after she leaves. Businesswoman Tory Lambert is also concerned, and is pushing for Stella to stay on as fire chief to give the department some badly needed stability. Then comes a fire call from Tory’s house, but by the time they get her out, she’s already dead. The question is, was it an accident—or murder?
Helping in her investigation is John Trump, a very attractive cop, and Eric Gamlyn, the former fire chief.
Oh, and Eric died in the 70s.
J.J. Cook is one of the pseudonyms used by Jim and Joyce Lavene, authors of the Retired Witches series. A friend knew I liked the latter series, so she gave me the four books in the Sweet Pepper series. I liked the fact that Stella was a competent woman in a male-dominated profession, even if the other trappings were pretty standard. (If I had a nickel for every cozy featuring a woman on the rebound from a lousy relationship--!) The plot itself was rather nifty, too. The Lavenes also avoided a lot of the hillbilly stereotypes, thank goodness.
On the negative side, I found the setting a bit problematical. I know it’s just me, but I have trouble picturing East Tennessee as a hot pepper producer, at least on the scale the book depicts. While most people now like a dose of hot peppers, it’s not a staple of the local cuisine. I harbor suspicions that peppers were picked because it made for a trendy ingredient in the recipes that accompany each story instead of a real local item, such as ramps. (For the uninitiated, ramps are a sort of wild onion or leek with a flavor between onion and garlic. A VERY pungent flavor, I might add. Entire festivals are built around eating ramps, but they are seasonal and not widely available—so not likely to entice those who like to find new recipes in their mysteries.)
My second part of the setting problem is while place names are dropped (Little Pigeon River, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge), the huge tourist attractions aren’t mentioned: Dollywood, Ober Gatlinburg, the outlet malls. It seemed a curious omission, akin to writing something set in Anaheim and never mentioning Disneyland. To have characters discuss the economic impact of tourism and never mentioning the major draw just seemed odd.
And if I wanted to get really picky, having Stella drive down in a Harley and never mention riding the Dragon’s Tail just indicated to me that they weren’t really familiar with the area. I may be totally wrong, but that’s how it felt to me.
There’s another aspect of the series which confounds me a little, but I’m reluctant to discuss it because it might constitute a spoiler.
Finally, there’s a great effort to avoid the word “said” in favor of any other verbal reference (quipped, opined, considered, rebuked, rebutted, refuted, commented, etc.) There’s also a tendency to tell rather than show in order to speed things up, but characterization suffers. There are several disagreeable characters in the books but they’re one dimensional villains whose only function is to thwart or threaten Stella.
I made it through the first book and most of the second, before finding something else to read. I need to be distracted and entertained as I trudge along on the treadmill, and these just didn’t do it for me.