A Utah author’s debut novel has Sugar House roots

CJ Connor’s ‘Board to Death’ combines board games with the cozy mystery genre.

(Mac Minshew | Kensington Books) CJ Connor, the Utah author of "Board to Death."

St. George native CJ Connor said he will never forget the first time he visited Salt Lake City — and, specifically, the Sugar House neighborhood.

“I was just overwhelmed with how many pride flags there were in the business windows,” Connor said. “That’s something that you would never see in St. George. … It gave me a lot of hope when I was younger, visiting Salt Lake, that I could find somewhere where I could eventually come out [and] live openly as trans, find somewhere that I belong within the state.”

That surprising, inclusive sense of community, Connor said, inspired him to write his first novel, “Board to Death.”

The book is set to be released Tuesday by Kensington Books, under its Kensington Cozies imprint. Connor is scheduled to throw a release party, on Saturday, August 26, from noon to 3 p.m., at Under the Umbrella Bookstore, 511 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. He’s also scheduled to appear on a panel of debut authors at the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention in September.

The novel centers on Ben Rosencrantz, a queer English professor who returns to his hometown of Salt Lake City to run his family’s board game shop in Sugar House. When someone turns up dead at the shop’s front door, Rosencrantz finds himself as the prime suspect.

Connor said he started writing the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, a “tumultuous time” when he also started getting into the “cozy mystery” genre — which the website Novel Suspects defines as books set in small community groups, where the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the violence and sexual situations occur safely offstage. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books and TV’s “Murder, She Wrote” are often cited as examples of the genre.

“They were really comforting to me, partially because it had this little close-knit community in them, which I was kind of missing with not being able to see my friends as much,” Connor said. Also, he said, “that puzzle kind of gave me something to focus on that wasn’t as overwhelming as the world around me.”

But Connor also discovered within the genre, there weren’t many cozy mysteries with queer characters — or, as he’s dubbed “Board to Death,” a “quosy” mystery, a queer cozy mystery.

“It’s really important for readers to have stories where they can see themselves in the characters, and they can find stories with characters that are experiencing similar things to them,” Connor said. “That’s something that queer readers often grew up without. When I was growing up, there were hardly any books with queer representation, especially queer books that had happy endings.”

(Kensington Books) The jacket cover for "Board to Death," the murder mystery by Utah author CJ Connor.

There are small similarities to Connor’s story and that of his main character, Rosencrantz.

For example, Connor said, he and his husband frequent board game shops in Utah, like Game Haven in Sandy or Game Night Games in Sugar House, and this helped inspire the setting of the book.

“We would spend a lot of time at board game shops, and we still do,” Connor said. “I was really struck by how cozy and comforting it felt to be in them, but also how welcoming they were, [to] all kinds of people, and how they seem to bring people together through game nights.”

Connor said he also enjoyed the shops’ atmosphere.

“[For] people who would otherwise feel shy, or like they weren’t as welcome in social situations, board game shops gave them an opportunity to meet new people and feel welcomed,” he explained. “I felt that that would lend itself really well to a cozy mystery.”

Rosencrantz’ background is what Connor said he wishes he had growing up.

“He is raised in Sugar House. He has a more accepting family from the start,” Connor said, adding that Sugar House has a “small-town vibe” that was a perfect place to set his story. “I was really inspired to write [Ben], out of appreciation for a lot of the queer people that I met after coming out.”

Connor said he’s grateful to start his writing career with this book in particular, because he “loves Utah and the queer community in Utah.”

His favorite part of working on the book was being able to incorporate board game Easter egg moments throughout the story. “I tried to include a lot of more classic board games that readers might recognize like Rummikub, Monopoly, but also a little bit more niche ones like Gloomhaven,” Connor said.

Connor’s plan, he said, is to make “Board to Death” the first in a continuing series of game-related mystery books. “I’m working on the second book in the series, which is called ‘Killer Cube,’” he said. “It takes place at a Rubik’s Cube competition.”

“What I hope readers take away is that Utah isn’t any one thing or any one community,” Connor said. “It’s a very rich and interesting place, and I wanted to portray that in my book, just how much is going on here and how it’s home to all kinds of people and that everyone belongs here.”