Described as a locked-room mystery, The Golden Spoon by Jessa Maxwell is a debut novel that delivers exactly what it promises; a fun story with some quirky characters and a rich setting that ties it all together nicely. Its publisher compares it to the bestselling mystery The Maid by Nita Prose, another whodunit that’s written to appeal to readers of Agatha Christie and Anthony Horowitz. Unlike many crime novels of today, there is an air of lightness to all these books; especially evident in this recent release as it takes place over the one week taping of a reality baking show. It’s all done in the name of entertainment, which this book certainly takes the cake on (baking puns are just too easy)!
Betsy Martin is known as “America’s Grandmother”, a wealthy woman with a stable of bestselling cookbooks that the whole country adores. She grew up at Grafton; a Vermont estate that she still lives on, desperate to keep it looking fresh, so for a new steady income she stars in a baking reality show that takes place in a tent on its very grounds. The six contestants live in the mansion for the week they are competing. The novel opens with Betsy discovering a dead body halfway through the week’s taping, and then we go back two weeks before that to meet each baker and learn a bit more about them. Each has a secret, with different motivations for wanting to be on this wildly popular television series. The only thing each person has in common are their incredible baking skills, which are thoroughly described during the mouthwatering competitions. The addition of a new (and slimy) host of the show, Archie, throws Betsy’s careful plans into disarray, while livening up the cast and their interactions – sometimes for worse, sometimes for the better. Grafton itself is a character, looming above the baking tent with many secrets of its own. Not quite a locked room mystery, the isolated setting does point the finger towards a select few people that could have a motive for murder, and a perfectly-timed thunderstorm offers a spooky atmosphere ideal for a reckoning.
An interest in baking or reality television is not a prerequisite to enjoy this novel. Because I don’t watch reality tv I may have missed a few references to popular television shows on the air, but this didn’t at all hinder my reading. The competition lends itself to spinning new motives – would anyone ‘kill’ for a chance to win the Golden Spoon? But the identity of the body isn’t revealed until almost the last quarter of the book, so I won’t spoil it here either. The suspense around Betsy’s eventual discovery is built up even further when other secrets from the contestants come out, and because each person is sent away after they are kicked out of the competition, the possibility always lingers that they never truly left, just hid away somewhere in the vast property that is Grafton. Tension also builds as little mishaps are discovered in the baking tent suggestive of sabotage, and almost every single character in the book, even the television producers, could be suspected of playing those little games to boost ratings. Nothing is as it seems here, and the structure of the novel plays to this perfectly.
The development of each character only has so much runway, simply because there are 6 contestants, and this isn’t a long book. But Besty’s character, and her background, motivations, and inner dialogue are incredibly well done. I’ll admit to being so impressed with her development that I almost felt manipulated, I began to change my mind about her as the pages continued and I realized at the end of the book that this is exactly what Maxwell was working towards.
There’s a light trail of humour that runs through the narrative as well, because how do you taking a baking reality show so seriously? It’s meant to be lighthearted fun (until a dead body shows up) and the banter and inner dialogue both reflect that. And like all good character building and their gradual development, it’s only a knife-edge between ‘ha-ha’ humour, and cruel humour that cuts a person down, nodding to other more sinister motivations. Maxwell had me second guessing just about everything as I reached the end of this book, which is just one of the many reasons every mystery lover should pick up this new release.