Midnight Cravings starts with a pretty good premise and might have turned out to be a more enjoyable read had author Elizabeth Harbison taken a little more time to invest it with some substance, proofread for annoying inconsistencies, and avoid so many clichéd characters and situations.
A chili cook-off weekend set in the small town of Beldon, North Carolina, is an annual event attracting many tourists and aggravating the local police force, most especially Chief of Police Dan Duvall. This year’s event will feature famous cookbook author Beatrice Beaujold, whose best-selling cookbook, The Way to a Mans Heart: 100 Spicy Man-Luring Recipes, has garnered her a faithful following of true believers – i.e., women who have used the recipes to snag previously commitment-phobic men. City girl Josie Ross, newly hired by the PR agency handling Beatrice to see to the author’s every need and get maximum publicity for their client, desperately needs this job and has done enough homework to insure she is completely prepared for the assignment – or so she thinks. Within hours of arriving in Beldon, Josie’s bags are stolen, she has a run-in with Dan when she doesn’t think he’s taking the theft seriously enough, and the gray-haired, apple-cheeked Beatrice turns out to be a beer-swilling, chain-smoking, gun-toting virago.
The romance is pretty typical for small-town stories: he doesn’t trust big city women because he’s been burned by one; she’s a happily career-minded city girl with little thought of marriage and children or leaving the fast lane until she meets him. Despite being a bit tired of this theme, I looked forward to something engaging, if not particularly out of the ordinary. But aside from the theme, too many other problems kept it from being engaging.
First was the romance, or, rather, the lack of a convincing one. And it wasn’t even that there was too much emphasis on lust. The problem is that I never even saw chemistry between Dan and Josie – there was attraction based upon the other’s good looks, but I never picked up on enough ambient sizzle to drown out Josie’s and Dan’s constant internal monologues about the dangers of getting involved with each other. Without a build-up of emotional and sexual tension, the love scenes felt gratuitous and mechanical, often seeming to come out of nowhere.
Then there are the inconsistencies and information voids. Was it her suitcase or her briefcase that was stolen, or both? Why is she thinking about using the phone in her room when she’s already been told there are no phones in the rooms? Why is she leaning back against a door with a defective latch that she previously pulled closed? If this is such a major event in terms of tourists, why do we rarely see them or hear about them? And given what a law enforcement nightmare this is all supposed to be, why isn’t Dan getting calls on his two-way radio until a scene late in the story when he and Josie use them for a private chat? There are many such errors or omissions that just made me go “huh?” Many are minor, but collectively they become very annoying since they seem to represent a certain haphazardness in setting and maintaining the scene. It’s never more apparent that all the other characters are merely there to provide the impetus for an “event” than when Dan and Josie end up together scantily dressed in a community bathroom following a series of pratfalls by Dan’s brother that would have made Chevy Chase proud. The book has more than a few such “set-ups” (the defective door latch was one), and while a certain amount of that is probably to be expected, a story needs a great deal more than that to provide credible entertainment.
Finally, there is simply no characterization, no explanation of even characters who make a fairly regular appearance. Dan’s brother, Jerry, is a total loser who constantly brings trouble to Dan, but we never learn anything about him aside from what is needed to set up the next gag. Not even Josie and Dan were fleshed out in any way; I knew little more about them at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and I certainly had no idea why they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Dan, at least, improved upon further acquaintance, while Josie seemed less competent, more unreasonable and impossibly naive as the story progressed. One last comment, as far as the authors depiction of this small Southern town: no cell phone service, a combination women’s clothing/auto parts store, a hotel manager described as sounding like a character out of Gone With the Wind, a hotel with a broken-down elevator and pay phone during a major annual event… well, I just wanted to throw that out there for those who note such things.
I did kind of like the Beatrice Beaujold character, even though I didn’t understand her any better than anyone else in the story. But as unabashedly horrid as she was, her comments and behavior were entertaining. As far as endings go, I can’t say I foresaw how things were going to turn out, but I can say it was pretty standard. Each chapter does begin with a recipe from the infamous cookbook, and some of them sound really good (not that I’m going to be doing any cooking – I mean, get real).
I really wanted to like Midnight Cravings more than I did but, given the many problems it had, it’s one I can’t recommend. You’re better off with chili and heartburn if you crave a midnight snack.