ALAMEDA -- For the past 36 years, Charles Kerns has spent several months a year in Oaxaca.
He loves the city and its people -- and he loves food. Kerns also loves to write about Mexico and his expat lifestyle and keeps his eyes open for the germ of a mystery.
One day, the bakery down the street from his Oaxaca home exploded soon after Kerns had finished his breakfast doughnuts, and he had the start of his second mystery, "Oaxaca Chocolate."
"It was an accident, but I was thinking what if it wasn't an accident? What if someone from the states blew it up, someone trying to move into Oaxaca?" he said. "I got to thinking how it could have happened and the whole story emerged from there."
So "Oaxaca Chocolate" begins when Santo Gordo -- as Kerns' protagonist, Robert Evans, is called -- sees his favorite bakery blow up and is told to keep mum about anything he saw by his taxi driver friend. What follows is part travelogue, part intrigue, part food fest as Evans gets mixed up in fighting an American chocolate startup from moving into Oaxaca and researching new breakfast cafes along the way.
Being too nosy gets Evans injured and his investigation disrupts his leisurely expat life as does a visit from his daughter. A second mystery revolves around her and a charity scam. Following the chocolate money trail brings Evans to Alameda making this a cross-border mystery and allowing Kerns to share with readers his beloved Island city.
More than telling a story, Kerns wants people to know about Mexico's colonial city high in the scenic mountains and its gracious people and warm lifestyle. He also wants to instill some knowledge of the changes Oaxaca and its people are experiencing.
"Oaxaca is a complex place. There's a new middle class emerging and a lot of expats moving in, but it's in the center of one of the poorest parts of Mexico," Kerns said. "So there are very complex relationships and a tension between development and maintaining its heritage."
Part of that heritage is the making of chocolate, an important ingredient in mole and a drink whose preparation dates back to the days of Montezuma, thus the chocolate theme in this second book.
"Chocolate has a long history in Mexico, so readers learn a little bit about this history in the book," he said.
Culture also finds its way into Kerns' mysteries and he sets "Oaxaca Chocolate" around the four parts of Christmas -- Posada, Buena Noche, Año Nuevo and Dia de Reyes.
"Food is important, but so are the festivals. There's always something happening in the street in Oaxaca, part of a festival, part of tradition," he said.
For his second book, Kerns wanted to write about the two places he loves, so he chose to bring the storyline to Alameda, where he has lived with his wife for seven years. He describes both cities as "lost homelands," especially Alameda where he feels like he's in a living museum of his life with its main street, century-old trees, ice cream store and streets that resemble a museum from the 1880s to 1960s.
Already into his third Santo Gordo mystery, Kerns has had to step up his research, exploring new sites and trying out new restaurants. He's also committed to learning more about the political situation, with its tensions and demonstrations.
"I have friends who talk to me about what's going on, so I hear it from them. That's what I like to do -- is to talk to people about what's happening," Kerns said.
With an eye to including more action but also including place and people, book three might find Santo Gordo back in Alameda, having wound up in a bit of trouble down south, allowing the author to again share his city with readers.
"I just feel people don't know Alameda; it's sort of a hidden gem," he said. "Oaxaca is getting better known, but it gives a real sense of what Mexico is like, so I really just want to talk about these two wonderful places."