Ellen Byron & Books

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This really started out as a Thanksgiving request, but I changed it in the process. I was going to ask a few authors to tell me about books they were grateful for. Instead, since COVID-19 still hangs over everything, I asked them to tell me about books they’re grateful they read in the last several years. I also said they could mention their own books. I’m grateful so many responded! Ellen Byron was the first. Check for Ellen’s book suggestions in the Web Store. https://store.poisonedpen.com/

Ellen Byron is the Agatha Award–winning and USA Today bestselling author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. As Maria DiRico, she also writes the Catering Hall Mysteries. Her website is https://www.ellenbyron.com/


When Covid locked down the world, I comforted myself by doing two things in excess: reading and drinking wine. (I’ve since cut back on the latter, although my husband said he’s never made more money returning bottles to our recycling center.)

I read so many books I couldn’t keep track of them — Note to self: keep a list of what you read! — but a few stand out as particularly memorable for a range of reasons:

Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks. My favorite genre is historical mysteries. I could fill a page listing all the series I read and love. But I have a particular fondness for Fredericks’ Jane Prescott Mysteries. I’m a native New Yorker and grew up fascinated by the city’s Gilded Age past. Death of a Showman is set in 1914, so it straddles that particular time period while foreshadowing another historical event I’m obsessed with, World War I. Fredericks’ series features a smart, compassionate female protagonist, which always appeals to me. And as a playwright who spent a lot of her formative years in the New York theatre scene, I loved the book’s plot was set against the backdrop of Broadway.

Good Girl: A Memoir of Overcoming Rape, Breast Cancer & Fundamentalism, Laura Jensen Walker. When I’m not reading mysteries, I read non-fiction and this memoir was the best I’ve read in a long time. Despite the traumatic subject matter, the tone of the book is so conversational that it’s easy to forget Laura isn’t in the room with you. She not only brings readers to tears, she also inspires them and even provides laughs on occasion. It’s a super impressive hat trick.

A Death in Jerusalem, by Jonathan Dunsky. My introduction to this series was literally prompted by the lockdown. I arrived at my local gym to discover it was closed due to Covid. (Sadly, it never reopened.) Heading back to the parking lot, I ran into another gym regular, who said, “I was hoping to see you today. I know you write mysteries and I wanted to give you this book.” She handed me a copy of the first Adam Lipid Mystery, and soon I was hooked on the series. It’s set during Israel’s nascent days as a country. (Told you I loved historical mysteries!) Adam Lipid, once a Hungarian detective, is now a P.I. and Holocaust survivor haunted by the loss of his family in the concentration camps. The plot of A Death in Jerusalem revolves around the 1952 storming of Israeli parliament, offering an eerie and topical parallel to the January 6th storming of our own nation’s capital.

(Note from Lesa – Sadly, this book is hard to find.)

Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, by Marda Barton and Kenneth Holditch. I have such a personal connection to this book. I picked it up as research for my new series, the Vintage Cookbook Mysteries, which is set in the New Orleans mansion-turned-museum of a late restauranteur. I mentioned the book purchase to my friend Jan Gilbert, a NOLA native, and she said, “There’s a chapter in it about my mom and aunt.” I responded, “Get out!” and ran to read it. Indeed, the chapter titled “Alice O’Shaughnessy & Helen Gilbert, The Two Sisters: Birds of a Feather,” is all about how the two sisters held court at Galatoire’s every Friday lunch hour. There’s even a quote from Jan. It was like a sign from the writing heavens that I was on the right track with my new series.

Speaking of which…

I launched not one but two new series during lockdown, the aforementioned Vintage Cookbook Mysteries and the Catering Hall Mysteries (as Maria DiRico). I’m thrilled to share they’re both available for preorder right here at Poisoned Pen.

Wined and Died in New Orleans, Vintage Cookbook Mystery #2, release date February 7, 2023. No, this book wasn’t inspired by my own copious wine consumption during lockdown. The plot comes from a story I read on the Internet about how a couple remodeling their country home discovered a vast amount of whiskey dating back to the 1920s hidden in the crawl space. I substituted 150-year-old Madeira wine for whiskey in my book and added the threat of a hurricane, based on several bouts of threats and actual storms I experienced myself.

Four Parties and a Funeral, Catering Hall Mystery #4, release date March 28, 2023. Remember how I mentioned I’m a native New Yorker? I channeled my own experience of growing up in Queens with cousins who ran two catering halls into this series. I even use my late nonna’s maiden name, Maria DiRico, as my pen name and my protagonist Mia Carina actually lives in Nonna’s real-life two-family house in Astoria. InFour Parties and a Funeral,  the filming of a ridiculous reality series, The Dons of Ditmars Boulevard, sparks both humor and murder. This series has received a seal of approval from various DiRico, DiNardo, DiVirgilio, Tenaglia, Testa, and Caniglia family members.

A toast —whiskey or wine, your call —to the indefatigable bookshop owners who soldiered on through the pandemic and improvised creative ways to provide us with the literary escape we so desperately needed. Now that the world has opened up again, I hope you’ll visit your local independent bookstore to thank them and shop with them in person.