Pouncing on Murder
A Bookmobile Cat Mystery
By Laurie Cass
By Laurie Cass
It was a blustery March weekend at the end of a long, cold winter, and my husband and I were itching to get out of the house.
Late March, however, is an awkward time in northwest lower Michigan, and our options seemed limited to poor skiing or a walk in the woods through a foot of slushy snow. Since neither of those two things felt very attractive, I picked up the local newspaper and started paging through the list of weekend activities.
“Here’s something,” I said. “They’re having a maple syrup demonstration at Hartwick Pines State Park.”
“Sounds okay,” my husband said, and went to fetch the car keys.
An hour later, we were standing outside near a roaring fire, chatting with park rangers about how maple syrup is made.
“Bring in the sap,” ranger number one said, “cook it, then can it. Pretty simple, really.”
My husband eyed the contraption they were using to cook down the sap. “That looks expensive.”
“Ah, you don’t have to use one of these,” ranger number two said. “Lots of folks start with a big open pan. Just make sure it can take the heat, is all you really need.”
The day had turned sunny and warm (for March), so we hung out with the rangers and a few other interested people, learning the simple art of making maple syrup.
We watched sap being poured into the pan, we watched it boil vigorously, we watched as ranger number one measured its temperature, and we were first in line when they opened up a package of disposable foam cups and asked, “Anyone want to try?”
On the drive home, my husband said, “We could do that.”
“It didn’t look hard,” I agreed. “A lot of work, though.”
“Sure, but most of it’s during mud season. What else is there to do this time of year?”
He had a point, and it was such a good one that I told him so.
The following spring we tromped through the woods, drilled a small hole in the dozen or so trees we’d marked the previous fall, and pounded a piece of metal called a spile into the hole. We hung a covered bucket on each spile and maple sap started to drip-drip-drip into the buckets.
Eighty gallons of drips later, we assembled a fire pit of concrete blocks, laid the stainless steel pan a friend had fabricated for us across the top, built a fire, and started cooking.
That was more than ten years ago, and we’ve cooked maple syrup every spring since. Not only is the end product delightful, but we find that getting outside every day to haul the sap in from the woods helps dispel the dreariness of mud season, that eternal time after the snow starts melting to the time when the leaves start coming out.
Cooking days are scheduled on March or April weekends when the weather is nice enough to spend twelve hours over an outside fire, boiling over a hundred gallons of sap down to two gallons of maple syrup. If the weather is nice enough, friends and neighbors come over, we roast marshmallows, talk about the coming summer, and generally have a good time hanging out.
Five or so years into our maple syruping efforts, I became a published writer. My first series, the PTA Mystery Series written under the name Laura Alden, took place in small town Wisconsin, and the main character was a single mother and bookstore owner. A lot of things went into those books, but for whatever reason I never thought about incorporating the making of maple syrup into any of the five books in that series.
Now I’m writing the Bookmobile Cat Mystery series, which is set in the same area where I live. The first two books took place during summer and the third was in early winter. Then, roughly a year ago, it came time to plan the fourth.
“Well,” I said to myself, “I suppose it’s time to set a book in the spring. Probably late spring, so the change of seasons can be part of the story.”
The next day at breakfast, my husband, who was in the act of pouring our syrup on his pancakes, happened to ask how the plot of the fourth book was coming along.
“Okay,” I said. “I think it’s going to happen in April.”
He hefted the small pitcher he held in his hand. “You should put something about this in it.”
And that’s how maple syrup making ended up in Pouncing on Murder.