Saturday, 21 August 2021

Baking Bad by Kim M. Watt

The quiet little village of Toot Hansell is a place where the rest of the world doesn't intrude. The locals are mainly concerned with bake sales, the summer fete and debating what to do about the garish new gastropub that's opened a few miles away. However, the murder of the local vicar results in the arrival of Detective Inspector Adams and her formidable analytical powers, which seem stymied by the local activities of the Women's Institute, formidably led by RAF Wing Commander Alice Martin (Ret.), who has her own ideas on how to handle the investigation. Oh, and there's also dragons hanging around.

I must confess to a weakness for a good pun and a high concept, and Baking Bad certainly employs both features; the sequel titles splendidly continue the theme through Yule Be Sorry, A Manor of Life and Death and Game of Scones. The concept here is that a quaint little English village is about to become Murder Central (hopefully taking the pressure off Midsomer), with all the clever bits of misdirection, multiple suspects and conflicting motives that you'd expect, with the added complication that the last extant dragons in England are living in caves nearby.

These aren't exactly Smaug and Balerion the Black Dread, though. It turns out that dragons are the size of very large dogs - maybe small ponies - and are somewhat less able to breathe torrents of fire than advertised. As the dragons note, Saint George exaggerated their size and formidability a tad after being embarrassed about killing the equivalent of a flying donkey. They are, however, sentient creatures capable of reason and speech, and also capable of projecting an illusion that - imperfectly - masks their presence. Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, and his assistant/squire Mortimer are known to the Women's Institute and are keen to help investigate the murder, despite their lack of knowledge about modern human life. Thus, much of the tension in the book arises from both the knowledge that the murderer might strike again and that mythical flying creatures are helping track them down, at the risk of discovery at any moment.

The book adopts a rotating POV structure between DI Adams, Wing Commander Martin (Ret.), Women's Institute member and walking human mess Miriam, and the young dragon (and almost as hot a mess) Mortimer. Adams and Martin are hyper-capable, rational women with formidable analytical skills who can keep their head in a crisis, whilst Miriam has a tendency to fly to pieces if someone looks at her funny and Mortimer's useful features (like aerial recon and stealth) are curtailed by his inability to use phones or computers, a tendency to leave rather obvious signs of his passage (like claw-marks on pavements and carpets) and him being very easily distracted by food.

Ah, food. Once you have read Baking Bad, you will never, ever complain about one of George R.R. Martin's feast descriptions again. The book is positively awash in scones, biscuits and flapjacks. Tense moments of putting clues together happen as the character exerts equal attention on their banana bread. Moments of existential terror as the dragons risk discovery and possible destruction whilst also pondering the greatness of the Victoria sponge. Moments of high drama take place over the distribution of lemon drizzle. The food descriptions in the book are accomplished and, frankly, obscene. I heavily advise against reading this book within temporal proximity of a trip to the supermarket or an English cafe because there is a nontrivial chance of putting on ten pounds per chapter.

The book is relatively short (at 280 pages in paperback, though with a lengthy appendix featuring baking recipes) and a fast read. The characterisation is fine, and the author canny enough to leave room for more development on the table (Alice Martin gets a background mystery that I'm assuming will be developed in later books in the series, although this is very much a stand-alone volume). The worldbuilding about the dragons is a bit lacking - considering they're a key selling point of the book, the dragons are lower-key than you'd expect - and the prose can get a bit other enthusiastic, especially at the start of the novel where scenes and moments are exactingly over-described. After about fifty pages, though the prose calms down and the rest of the novel is more accomplished. As a short, focused novel it's a fast read, albeit one littered with baked good descriptions like cholesterol landmines, which some readers might find annoying and others find actively dangerous.

If you've ever wanted to read a mash-up of Hot Fuzz, The Great British Bake-Off, Midsomer Murders, and freaking dragons, this will hit that weirdly specific spot. The literary equivalent of cotton candy - or, more appropriately, chocolate sponge cake - the book is a fun, disposable read, but one that poses a definitive threat to your waistline. Tread carefully. Baking Bad: A Beaufort Scales Mystery (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.

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