‘Dark Chocolate Demise’ by Jenn McKinlay

More from this show

Dark Chocolate Demise is McKinlay’s newest book in her cupcake mystery series.

The seventh book follows Mel and Angie as they bake for the first annual Old Town Zombie Walk in Scottsdale, Arizona.

However, fun times turn slightly scary when Mel finds a real dead body in a prop casket outside the bakery’s truck.

Mel surmises that the murder may link to a mob case that Angie’s brother, Joe, has been working on.

The novel includes recipes to make frightfully delicious treats that match the story line.

VOICEOVER: And now, an Eight original production. "Books & Co." is made possible by the Department of English at Arizona State University. And by the friends of Eight. Members of Eight, Arizona PBS, who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to "Books & Co." Bienvenidos todos. I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we're joined today by Jennn McKinlay, who is talking about her latest book, a mystery, "Dark Chocolate Demise," published by Berkeley Crime Prime. Welcome.

JENN MCKINLAY: Thank you so much.

ALBERTO RIOS: The book is a lot of fun. And it's in a genre I've heard called cozy mysteries. Maybe you can tell us what a cozy mystery is.

JENN MCKINLAY: Well. The story goes, this is what I've heard, that it's a marketing term that sales and marketing has come up with. But I think it actually goes back to -- I don't know – I would say one of the old-schoolboys - kind of a noir perhaps mystery writer. And I think one of them took exception with the non-noir, intricate decisional Agatha Christie kind of mystery where they said you're more likely to spill your tea than blood, and it became a tea cozy, you know.

ALBERTO RIOS: All right. And what does that mean then? If you know this is the kind of book you want to write, whatever kind might mean, how do you sit down, what do you do? What are you thinking?

JENN MCKINLAY: For me, it was kind of a natural gateway. I knew I wanted to be a mystery writer.

ALBERTO RIOS: How did you know that?

JENN MCKINLAY: I failed at romance.


JENN MCKINLAY: Honestly? The story originates with when I was 16 -- I was always a reader, it starts there. Big reader as a kid. Loved books, loved words. And then --

ALBERTO RIOS: That's a good starting point.

JENN MCKINLAY: And it never occurred to me writing was an occupation. We're not really groomed I think, you know, your parents guide you to the practical. Be a teacher, be -- you know, have a plan B. So then they messed it up completely by taking me to the movie "Romancing the Stone," which is the first time I ever saw a female author and she lived in New York, and she had a nice apartment, she wrote romances --

ALBERTO RIOS: She had adventures.

JENN MCKINLAY: She went to Columbia. It was fabulous. I thought that's the life I want. I didn't do anything with it for 10 years. And then I started writing romances. And they were not awesome. Because -- and this circles back to the very first lesson of writing. You have to write what you love. And what I'd always loved, what I cut my teeth on was Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth Peters, all the good female strong character mysteries from all historical points. So I tried writing the romances, it was a great experience. I met a lot of fabulous authors. I do love romance as a genre. But I'm just better at killing people. So I took the leap. I didn't think I was smart enough to write mysteries, because you have to have red herrings and plot it out. I thought oh, that's hard! Well, not so much. If you really break down and plot it out, I'm a plotting kind of person –

ALBERTO RIOS: We're going to talk about this.

JENN MCKINLAY: It's like the Rubik's cube when you finally get it. And then I just started writing. It took a couple years to sell my first mystery, but I was fortunate, I found an agent who really liked my voice, and she pushed me and finally we did sell.

ALBERTO RIOS: You're telling a writer's story. You wrote X number of novels that -- everybody's practice. And nobody wants to talk about that, and the -- what it takes to get through it is very difficult.
But it's like playing the piano or anything else. You need that --

JENN MCKINLAY: Absolutely.

ALBERTO RIOS: You were in language through it all.

JENN MCKINLAY: Absolutely. I think it comes to you in a variety of ways. I love theater, I love plays, and I think when you're studying language, when you're a writer, it all goes in the blender and it comes out in its own special way. Dispensary read something once that said it takes 10,000 hours to master. And I would guarantee I put in 10,000 hours before I sold a book.

ALBERTO RIOS: I know that sounds extraordinary, and it may shock our viewers, but I think that's a writer's story.


ALBERTO RIOS: And there's also, I'm reminded of something that -- this is going to seem out of whack here, someone said something very controversial, "Do not write love poems." What he meant by that, don't write what you love most first. Because you're not going to be any good at it.

JENN MCKINLAY: No, you're going to break your own heart.

ALBERTO RIOS: Wait until you're able, and I think you've come to that. You found it in mysteries

JENN MCKINLAY: I think so. And I think, I hope I'm always evolving. Right now I'm very happy in the traditional mysteries. I like -- I'm living a very normal life in the suburbs with a good husband and a sweet kid, and it's -- cozy fit me. But when everybody flies the coop, at least the kids, not the husband, it might be time to stretch my wings. But right now I enjoy going for the laugh, or looking at – when you're young and you have so many dreams, you have no idea how absurd your life will become when you're driving the minivan and you're at the soccer games or karate matches. And your life becomes so – so it's great to have an outlet that can make fun of it but give you a creative output. So I've had a great time.

ALBERTO RIOS: You said everybody flying the coop, does your family read your work, and then what do they say to you?

JENN MCKINLAY: They just started.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's difficult for a writer to know that their family or people that matter are going to be reading this.

JENN MCKINLAY: Yes. In fact, the romances were tougher.

ALBERTO RIOS: I can imagine.

JENN MCKINLAY: My dad was the one who said, “I know you wrote this, but you don't know anything about this.” I know, dad. So -- but with -- my husband reads them, and he is supportive. He's a journalist, so I get good input from him. He can tell me when I'm going off the skids. My sons have just started reading them. Someone said to me once, “your kids must be so impressed you're a writer.” And I'm like, not so much.

ALBERTO RIOS: They're off being kids.


ALBERTO RIOS: Let's talk about this very specific book, "Dark Chocolate Demise." A variation of “Death by


ALBERTO RIOS: Maybe you can give us a synopsis of what happens in this book.

JENN MCKINLAY: This one was a lot of fun to write. Someone asked me “How could you describe your mysteries?” And the only thing that really -- if you have to -- it's kind of an Agatha Christie, “I Love Lucy” mash-up. That's how I see my world.

ALBERTO RIOS: That is accurate.

JENN MCKINLAY: A little absurd, a little over the top, definitely comedic but with mystery. This one came about because I used to work at Phoenix Public Library, many, many years there. Loved it.
Beautiful building. Wonderful people. The librarians one year dressed up for the zombie walk in
Phoenix. So when I heard they were doing that, and my sons were in the full-on zombie apocalypse preparing. We had NERF guns, safety routes, temporary refuge place mapped out. It was zombies everywhere. And I was working with youth at the library and they were into the zombie apocalypse. So it seemed like we should check it out. So my whole family decked out and went to the zombie walk. My husband was resistant but he ended up being the best of us all, naturally. While I was there the first thing of course that occurred to me was --

ALBERTO RIOS: Zombie walk, it's a real thing.

JENN MCKINLAY: It's a real thing, hundreds of people. It's all levels of zombie.

ALBERTO RIOS: A lot of bandages.

JENN MCKINLAY: From little kids to – and then you have your zombie defense, they like to play. It's a whole day. And we had a fabulous time. We had so much fun. And of course being a writer, mystery writer you're always looking for -- and where's the dead body? So because I'm already invested in my characters in the seventh book, I know exactly where would I put the body. So the zombie walk moved to Old Town Scottsdale. But it's pretty much everything we saw except for the dead body.

ALBERTO RIOS: That raises an interesting issue. Naming -- names. Places, people, all that sort of thing. Where is the filter there?

JENN MCKINLAY: It's tricky.

ALBERTO RIOS: You mentioned Old Town Scottsdale and Mill Avenue, and a number much other things - having an interview with the New Times. These are all Phoenix-centric, Phoenix, Valley of the Sun, this area, centric things.


ALBERTO RIOS: What do you do with that?

JENN MCKINLAY: I put in some places I feel, like, when they reach landmark status, and then others I'm a little more careful. And I think -- I don't ever really say what street the bakery is on, because I'm not sure where I want it to be. So I keep it kind of --

ALBERTO RIOS: I thought that was smart, actually.

JENN MCKINLAY: Not specific. So they'll walk on Brown or Main or go to the Civic Center Mall but you never know exactly where they're walking from. But I like -- so many people travel to the valley, because it's such an amazing place. We know, we live here. And I love it when I hear from someone in Minnesota, oh, I walked those streets! I know that statue! I read the New Times!

ALBERTO RIOS: Which we take, we do that from books and films, and all that -- people love being able to identify or locate something.

JM:. Right. It makes it that much more real.

ALBERTO RIOS: It does. But it's a difficult thing for the writer to know how far to go with all of that.

JENN MCKINLAY: It is. It's a fine line. I don't think I've maimed any politicians. I've been careful.

ALBERTO RIOS: Politics is a whole other thing. You're talking about this then as a mash-up between "I Love
Lucy" and "Agatha Christie." As I was reading this I experienced it as well, I can't know what was stronger, the mystery or the story itself, the characters and the way they got on, and all that sort of thing. The mystery, I'm not sure takes front and center, even though of course everything would seem to revolve around it. The story, the book is really over here.

JENN MCKINLAY: Yeah. The characters are really kind of staged a coup, I think.

ALBERTO RIOS: These are characters we have seen before.

JENN MCKINLAY: Yeah. This is the seven --

ALBERTO RIOS: Maybe you can talk about that?

JENN MCKINLAY: This is the seventh book. The very first one is "Sprinkle With Murder" and it opens when they've just opened the bakery.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a bakery that specializes in --

JENN MCKINLAY: Cupcakes. Cupcakes and death, you know --

ALBERTO RIOS: Of course.

JENN MCKINLAY: Naturally. And it was one of those -- it was a series I proposed, but didn't think it would have much traction, because I thought cupcakes were a fad, I – I just -- I was having a cupcake moment, that's kind of fun. And I could be funny because it's cupcakes. It shouldn't be too serious. And now the eighth book will come out next year and I hear the publisher wants more.

ALBERTO RIOS: It wasn't a fad.

JENN MCKINLAY: At least the books aren't. So that's good. It's pretty much the core characters are three friends, and then -- who own the bakery, one of them is the chef, one is the money, and the other one gave up teaching to work in the bakery with the friends. And it is, there's shenanigans over seven books.

ALBERTO RIOS: Okay. And they start to add up.


ALBERTO RIOS: They know each other now, for good and bad.

JENN MCKINLAY: They know all the weak spots.

ALBERTO RIOS: They do. And they do consume cupcakes quite a lot.

JENN MCKINLAY: It's therapy.

ALBERTO RIOS: It is kind of therapy. I'm thinking, how much does that cost?

JENN MCKINLAY: You're eating profits! I know.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's funny. I was shocked the last time I purchased a cupcake.


ALBERTO RIOS: Oh, okay. Well, let me ask you about the humor here. Because it's just rife with humor. Starting with roach in the sewers.

JENN MCKINLAY: I don't even know where that came from. I blame being married to a musician. My husband is a musician, he plays locally all the time. And I think, you know, the Valley music scene, a lot of the people would recognize some of the people maybe.

ALBERTO RIOS: And the venues perhaps. As you've described them. I think that's, again, half the fun.

JENN MCKINLAY: It is. It's all the material goes in.

ALBERTO RIOS: I'd like to remind our viewers you're watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we're joined by Jenn McKinlay, talking about her latest cozy mystery, "Dark Chocolate Demise." That combination, dark chocolate and demise, we know we've heard death by chocolate, but there's something about how that fits what's going on in this particular story.


ALBERTO RIOS: I think becomes important. You have a lot of things where -- I don't know that you chose that for any particularly symbolic reason, it just was fun, but you have some curious moments where you raise language, for example, you have a character Manny, and the main protagonist is mentioning – Don Francisco. “Sabado Gigante,” big Saturday, the zombie walk is on a Saturday. Is more than just that T.V. show, that is to say for representational reasons it is a bigger thing to bring up than just simply the T.V. show. Which got canceled by the way.

JENN MCKINLAY: I know, so sad.

ALBERTO RIOS: Was that purposeful, or just something we read in after it -- I'm not asking for one answer or another, but --

JENN MCKINLAY: I think so much happens on an unconscious level as a writer, because I love the character Manny, he's a Scottsdale police detective, he's Hispanic, just a good guy. He talks about his grandfather, and how he loved -- it just fit. And I -- when I first moved here I used to watch it because I was trying to pick up the language. And I loved it.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a crazy show!

JENN MCKINLAY: To me it was more -- it was a reference point for his character.

ALBERTO RIOS: That makes sense. And to me I was just intrigued that this walk, this zombie walk, which is all focused – it seemed it happened on a Saturday, it was perfect, but it helped me see language is sometimes in story takes care of itself. Sometimes they just come together.
JENN MCKINLAY: They just fit.

ALBERTO RIOS: And that brings me to my next question. Mysteries don't just happen.


ALBERTO RIOS: They need some help. And you can't give it all away at the beginning. And you've got to save stuff and pace yourself. Do you have like a big war room, a big map? How does this work? You have more than one series, which we'll talk about, but you must have -- I don't know how you do it. What do you do?

JENN MCKINLAY: It's funny, when I first started writing, the romances, I was what we call a pantser. I wrote by the seat of my pants. Blank page, full-on -- and it was hard. It was -- it could be why I failed. Just a guess. When I got into the mysteries, though, I knew you have to have red herrings. You have to have multiple suspects. If readers solve it, there's the dead body and they figure it out, you haven't done your job. So I did start plotting, it was very painful. It's like a different side of your brain. But I write about -- I want to say about a 10-page outline. I've met authors, the ones who write by the seat of their pants, mystery novels, even, and they say plotting it ruins it, because they're not surprised. And I can see that. But for me usually I have a paragraph for a whole chapter. So I'm -- in that paragraph they have to find the body. And I'm thinking the body is going to end up dead this way. And that's all I have. So when I get to that chapter it's still a mystery to me as to how the person is dead, or – so I try to have a little bit of both. A little plotting, but I still have to figure it out.

ALBERTO RIOS: You could sell those later as your own cliff notes.


ALBERTO RIOS: That makes sense. I know every writer works differently.

JENN MCKINLAY: Completely. It's amazing.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's always an extraordinary conversation to see how they arrive there, how do you get from the first page to that last page. Plotting, how do you make someone turn a page, how do you compel them to do that, how do you make them want to. There's a great magic.

JENN MCKINLAY: And deviousness.

ALBERTO RIOS: They have to have a reason to keep turning, and the mystery is a perfect vehicle.

JENN MCKINLAY: I'm a big fan of cliff hangers.

ALBERTO RIOS: Okay, as you're doing this, are you imagining the reader? Are you imagining Jenn the writer?

JENN MCKINLAY: That's a good question. I was talking to some writer friends, we were describing our different ways. And I had one friend who said that every single word she thinks about. Every single word. And I had another one who said she wrote it 10 times. I have multiple series, I don't have the time, because I've overcommitted myself. The best way I can describe writing for me is that I literally fall into a rabbit hole and I'm taking off from what I'm seeing. It sounds “Alice in Wonderlandy” odd, but I feel like I'm watching a film and I'm the conduit. Some days everybody is quiet, but other days they're all talking. And I used to hear authors talk about, before I was published and committed to so many series and knew my characters, they would talk about how characters would get up and leave the room, and I would be like, are you kidding? And now I get it. They do that. Who knew?

ALBERTO RIOS: You invested them with enough of their own stuff, they will do things in spite of you.

JENN MCKINLAY: It's maddening.

ALBERTO RIOS: Have you had a character misbehave or not do something you wanted --

JENN MCKINLAY: Yes. I've had characters that were supposed to die and refused. And then that lovely 10-page outline I had, you know, because then I had to rethink the whole thing.

ALBERTO RIOS: As I'm reading through this, one of the funny moments for me was those ghost buster kids. I'm going to ask you about that. It reminded me, there's a film called "Gregory's Girl" in which a penguin keeps looking -- is lost in the background. It's never part of the actual story, really. You just see it in all these different scenes and it becomes a funny background motif that happens. They felt like they were playing that kind of a -- not a red herring role exactly, they were just kind of not -- and not exactly in the way of the plot, but they were just there to have fun and be part of this and not behave themselves in a way characters maybe traditionally do. Maybe they had a bigger role that I'm missing.

JENN MCKINLAY: They were actually – I wanted to play around with writing really young. So they're about middle school age. Two boys, and I wonder where I got the inspiration?


JENN MCKINLAY: My sons actually named them. And –

ALBERTO RIOS: We should explain there are these two kids that have an app or something?

JENN MCKINLAY: They have an app and they think they're ghost busters, basically. They call themselves “The Boneheaded Investigators” or something. They do drop in one significant clue, which was -- and I kneed somebody to do it. And they became my Dr. But it was also kind of a gift to myself to say, I want to try to write younger. Because usually a kid will pass through, but you don't spend much time with them. With these, I wanted them to have a distinct personality and see how comfortable it felt. I'm always -- I'm hoping I'm always trying new and different things.

ALBERTO RIOS: Will they show up again?

JENN MCKINLAY: I think they might.

ALBERTO RIOS: I think they might too.

JENN MCKINLAY: I think they might have their own series.

ALBERTO RIOS: I was laughing. What I like about them, they didn't have the overbearing necessity to be there. They were just kind of breaking into the scenery.

JENN MCKINLAY: Those are the characters you can't control.

ALBERTO RIOS: And I was laughing because it felt that way to me and I hoped I wasn't missing something, but I was enjoying them, and they weren't behaving themselves in a mystery. That gave them some vitality. Well, you have all of this stuff that makes you a writer that is just -- that is to say you've written books. How many series do you have, how many will they -- keep going into, how -- how does this conceptualize itself for you? You're writing all these books, maybe you're writing one book many times. I don't mean that pejoratively, I mean you're finding new things to say all the time. How does it feel to you? How do you have a cupcake mystery series, you have --

JENN MCKINLAY: A library series. Millinary one in London. That's when I needed a vacation. I think most writers feel this way, at least for me, it took me a very long time to break in. So when I did, I took everything. It was like, I'll write that series and that series. There wasn't enough. So I did have myself overcommitted, at one point I was writing five series. Three under Jenn McKinlay and two other writer-for-hire series. But the three I'm keeping, the other two have waned and the other is ending. They're doing well, it's hard to walk away when people say "I want more!" I'm excited because it looks like the cupcake -- I want to get to a full dozen.

ALBERTO RIOS: Baker's dozen.

JENN MCKINLAY: Exactly. The library one is going to get moved into hard cover. That's exciting.

ALBERTO RIOS: Very exciting.

JENN MCKINLAY: And the London one, I wasn't --

ALBERTO RIOS: That's almost unheard of today.

JENN MCKINLAY: Very rare. I was a bit stunned. We're excited about that. And then the London one, we'll see. It's been a lot of fun. I know they want more. For me it's nice to write something totally different. That I know nothing about.

ALBERTO RIOS: As we close up, let me ask you something about the name you write under. You have a nom de plume. What purpose does it serve for you?

JENN MCKINLAY: For me I got my start writing under another name. I wrote under Lucy Lawrence. I submitted so many times to the publisher, I think they decided I would go away if they gave me a series that they had created. So I took it. And it didn't do very well. But with that, I then sold the three that are in my name, the Jenn McKinlay name, and the more I was writing those, they had one other, I loved the storyline, so I took that one too. I have a Lucy Lawrence, Josie Bell, and Jenn McKinlay. So I can escape the country any time I want.

ALBERTO RIOS: You could be -- who are you when you sit down to dinner?

JENN MCKINLAY: I know. Depends on the day.

ALBERTO RIOS: This must be a lot of fun. In the midst of it all, it's work, no getting around it. And it's fun. But how much work is it for you.

JENN MCKINLAY: It's not -- you know, the lesson is write what you want to read. When I'm writing I'm probably laughing harder than anybody. I'm so fortunate, I'm so lucky, I just love what I do.

ALBERTO RIOS: And there's more coming. And so you're just going to die of thrill.

JENN MCKINLAY: I am. I'm going to keep going. Keep killing and murdering and mysterying.

ALBERTO RIOS: There's got to be people left over for you to knock off.

JENN MCKINLAY: I have a list.

ALBERTO RIOS: That's a fun way to think about it. You do get to name characters, and put people in positions and that is always fun.

JENN MCKINLAY: It is. And you can work out your own angst when you see bad things in the world, you can kind of make them right.

ALBERTO RIOS: I want to thank you for joining us.


ALBERTO RIOS: And I want to thank our viewers. You've been watching "Books & Co." I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we've been joined by Jenn McKinlay, talking about her latest cozy mystery, "Dark Chocolate Demise." Please join us again next time when we'll be bringing you another good book.

VOICEOVER: "Books & Co." is made possible by the department of English at Arizona State University. And by the friends of Eight. Members of Eight, Arizona PBS, who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

Learn more about Jenn McKinlay.
Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Three main characters from mystery shows premiering this summer

It’s the Summer of Mystery!

Graphic with the words
airs July 19

Psyche mission

Former President Donald Trump

Republican National Convention: Four nights of coverage

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: