The Pint of No Return by Ellie Alexander

The Pint of No Return
Ellie Alexander
Originally Published 2018
Sloan Krause #2
Preceded by Death on Tap

Last year I picked up Death On Tap on a whim as a quick lunchtime read and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Certainly there were some aspects of the novel that were more successful than others but it had a charming protagonist, a nice mix of supporting characters and lots of small town charm.

The Pint of No Return picks up a short while after the events of that novel as the town of Leavenworth gets ready to host its annual Oktoberfest celebrations. A film crew is in town, hoping to capture the festivities to use as part of a film about beer and Sloan is initially excited by the opportunity for some publicity for the microbrewery she works at when the crew ask to come by to film her at work.

Her excitement is soon dashed when she meets Mitchell, a former child star who has been hired to host the production but who seems rude, obnoxious and demanding. The bickering between Mitchell and the film’s producer, director and cameraman creates an uncomfortable tension in the bar while his loud complaints about the town and the accommodation that has been provided for him wins him few friends. It will not come as a shock to the reader when he is found dead several hours later with one of his fans accusing the owner of the rental company of killing him.

Being the second title in the series, Alexander does not need to devote quite so much space to establishing the cast of characters or the setting and instead uses it to creating a wide mix of suspects, each with distinctive motives for murder. Some of these are perhaps dismissed as suspects a little too readily with plausible cases still to be made against them but I think this is typically in service of the lively pace the book establishes.

In any case, as with the first novel the reader will not be able to prove their case against the actual murderer based on the evidence given but they may well suspect them. The reader will likely work out the killer based on intuition based on aspects of their characterization rather than any firm evidence. The explanation given at the end seems to hang together pretty well and the case is tied up quite neatly.

Unlike the first novel, here Sloan does not have much in the way of a personal stake in the investigation once she is reassured that Mitchell did not die of alcohol poisoning. Sometimes this can create problems with the cozy format but I think Alexander pitches it well here, having Sloan show interest in part because she wants to know whether she should trust someone. Her investigative style is quite conversational and laid back and the reader is not called on to accept anything too outlandish in the way she handles the case. For the most part it works.

A supporting plot that builds out of a cliffhanger at the end of the previous book feels like something of an afterthought. The tone of this subplot struck me as a little too dramatic and some may feel frustrated that there weren’t clearer answers given yet but I think it probably sets things up nicely for the next installment. I suspect it is probably for the best that it not be rushed in any case.

The supporting cast of characters Alexander creates are, once again, a strength of the novel and I think one of the new additions is fun, even if some of her motivations are left a little unexplored. With the exception of her boss, the other characters are not given much to do and some of the threads are left unresolved, presumably to be picked up in a future volume. This in part reflects that the world of the investigation and the brewing community are kept quite separate in this story and so time spent with the staff at Das Keller or Nitro is time away from the murder mystery.

One of my complaints about the first novel was the way that the author’s research sometimes sat awkwardly with the story itself as Sloan would suddenly break away from the narrative to explain about a particular method of brewing beer. Alexander still has a lot of information to share with the reader but rather than putting it into the narration, she is able to use either the need to explain something for the documentary or a conversation with other brewers as a way of incorporating it in a much more natural way.

Epicureans will likely respond favorably to the descriptions of beers and German cooking and though I am not a beer connoisseur, I did find the description of a sausage, pepper and potato scramble to be quite delightful. Sadly nothing I could whip up in my kitchen could quite live up to that concept. As with the research, I felt that these aspects of the book were better integrated to the story and hung together very well making for a very solid, enjoyable read.

While not perfect, The Pint of No Return is a fun whodunit set against the colorful backdrop of a beer festival. Alexander’s characters are fun and the story unfolds at a good pace making for a frothy but engaging adventure for those who enjoyed the first volume.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Pint of No Return will be released in October 2018.

Death on Tap by Ellie Alexander

Death on Tap
Ellie Alexander
Originally Published 2017
Sloan Krause Mystery #1
Followed by The Pint of No Return

Death on Tap is the first in a new series of cozy mysteries set in the Bavarian-styled, beer-brewing village of Leavenworth, Washington. The protagonist, Sloan Krause, is a talented brewer who works with her husband’s family at their brewhaus but her world comes crashing apart when she walks in to discover her husband cheating on her with a barmaid.

Kicking Mac out of their house, she has to start again and manages to secure a job working for a start-up nanobrewery. She is the only employee and has a lot of work to do pulling things together in time for their big launch. Just as it seems that things are going well she discovers a body in one of the fermenting tanks and, worse still, it seems her husband is in the frame for murder.

I should probably confess at this point that I am not much of a drinker so words like nanobrewery mean little to me. What attracted me to this novel was the fact I had never seen a cozy mystery set in that particular world and the way it grabbed me with its first sentence. It was a lunchtime gamble forced on me when I contrived to leave all of my books and my Kindle at home and had to find something off the new releases shelf at work and the fact that I finished it the same day speaks to how much I enjoyed it.

I found Sloan Krause a likable protagonist, although her backstory is not particularly detailed. We do learn that she was a foster kid and that is part of the reason she feels so close to Mac’s family and resents the idea of losing them. She is charming, hard-working and devoted to the people she cares about. I would also say she possesses an often very-entertaining narrative voice which does keep things lively.

The mystery itself is entertaining though I don’t think a reader could reach the conclusion through evidence but simply through character intuition. I suspect that may reflect that the book has to balance establishing its characters, setting and interpersonal relationships with its mystery and perhaps that results in a slightly simpler mystery narrative. While I think the book doesn’t quite strike the perfect balance between these aspects, I still enjoyed learning more about these characters and discovering their secrets.

Alexander creates an interesting blend of characters, many of whom make strong impressions in just a few pages. They all have strong, lively personalities that help make them instantly memorable and helps to develop a cast of characters that readers will hope to encounter in sequels (and at least one they’ll love to hate).

I think it is also quite clear that Alexander knows a fair amount about the world of brewing, but there are a few points in the story where I think she is guilty of letting her research show. I certainly recognize that I am not the target audience for those moments but to me they got in the way of the story and felt a little unnatural. By all means explain something to add a bit of color or if it is necessary but details about the proper temperature to refrigerate experimental hops are extraneous.

On the other hand, I suspect that beer enthusiasts will probably savor the lengthy descriptions of beer-paired foods such as chocolate stout brownies as well as the various beverages imbibed throughout the book. Death on Tap conjures up plenty of small town charm and has a wonderful coda that sets up a second book that I am looking forward to reading.