Madeline's is the Saratoga Springs coffee shop ("Expresso Bar," rather) where writer Jacob Burns spends his mornings. A local celebrity after selling a screenplay to Hollywood for a million dollars, Jacob is still stunned by his good fortune, and having a difficult time settling down to his next project.
When Donald Penn drops dead in Madeline's after throwing a safe deposit key to Jacob, the initial shock soon gives way to curiosity. Penn was a local eccentric known as "the Penn" for his habit of constantly scribbling in a notebook while drinking his cup of Ethiopian coffee. Jacob suspects that the safe deposit box may just hold all of those notebooks, and he decides to be the one to read them.
A simple puzzle turns into a dangerous mystery when it becomes obvious most of Saratoga Springs is intensely interested in Penn's notebooks. Jacob's home is burgled by someone looking for them, and many of Jacob's friends are now treating him with angry suspicion. Why Jacob continues his sleuthing is a question even Jacob himself cannot answer, but as he begins to suspect that the Penn was murdered, he feels the need to prove his theory and find the murderer.
Jacob's home life with his wife and two boys is described charmingly and realistically. In fact, I found Babe Ruth and Gretzky (they used to be Daniel and Nathan until they decided to change their names) more interesting than much of the mystery. Jacob's first person narration of his adventures in sleuthing is also entertaining –
"So I opened the car door as quietly as I could, checked to make sure no cops were around, and started the engine. CHUGGA VUGGA! Oh God, I thought, that's it; no more burglaries until I buy a new car.
But the mystery itself is fairly pedestrian, and Jacob doesn't so much detect the truth as he stumbles on to it.
I backed into someone's driveway and took off down Washington Street. My car felt like the loudest thing in all of Saratoga at that hour. I might as well have had a bumper sticker that said, HERE I AM! ARREST ME! But I guess the cops were hanging out watching the firemen or something, because I made it home without incident.
No question: It's better to be lucky than smart."
It's hard to rate a book where I loved the writing, but found the actual story rather dull. The non-mystery aspects, Jacob's narrative style and the details of his everyday life, were very well done. The mystery, in contrast, is marginal. The array of suspects is impressive, but there is never a compelling reason, either in terms of motives or clues, for it to be one person rather than another, and I am left with the feeling that it was something of an "eenie, meenie, miny, moe" on the part of the author that decided. Or maybe a simple illustration of the "it's better to be lucky than smart" concept. Either way, Breakfast at Madeline's, while not a compelling mystery, was an enjoyable read.