Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Ellery Queen takes a trip

The sleuth leaves the city behind to tackle a small-town family’s misery in ‘calamity town’

My mom had the Wrightsville Murders omnibus pictured at left on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a big heavy hardcover book containing three full-length Ellery Queen novels — Calamity Town, Crazy Like a Fox, and Ten Days’ Wonder — that I devoured starting in about sixth grade (40-some years ago). And I knew I had re-read it more than once, but I don’t think I fully grasped how often I must have read and re-read it until I started my most recent read of the first book in the omnibus, Calamity Town.

On every page — nearly in every paragraph — there was a phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue that triggered the strongest sense of dejà vu. It wasn’t so much that I remember the outlines of the story or whodunit (I actually didn’t) but that I remembered actual words and phrases! I’ve never had that happen before and it was a pleasingly disconcerting sensation.

Fortunately the vertigo wore off after Part I (which makes me wonder if I read and re-read just the first section over and over? I wish I could go back in time to find out, but then again that would mean living through junior high and high school again and no thank you) and I could just enjoy the book for what it is, which is a splendidly plotted mystery full of appealing characters put into realistic situations and left to find their way out.

A brief plot overview: It’s 1940, and famous writer Ellery Queen has traveled to Wrightsville, a small town in upstate New York, in search of “color” for his next mystery novel. While there, he is befriended by the Wright family, descendants of the town’s founder. That leaves him in the perfect place to observe as one misadventure after another befalls the family, culminating in the requisite murder.

Perhaps because they take Ellery out of his usual New York City locale, the Wrightsville novels have always had an extra appeal for me. Whereas the “regular” Queen mysteries set in NYC seem to rely on intricately formed plots with clues and red herrings scattered about, in Wrightsville the characters come to life fully formed and breathing. Incredibly for a novel written in the 1940s, there is virtually no offensive racial stereotyping or cheap laughs gained at the expense of the “hicks” that populate Wrightsville. Ellery does not condescend to his hosts, not even the Town Soak who is prone to declaiming Shakespeare from his drunken perch at the base of the founder’s statue in the town square. It feels so much like a real town that I am half convinced I’ve been there before.

I guess the best thing I can say about this novel is that now I remember why I read and re-read it over and over all those years ago. It’s a magnificent piece of scene-setting and characterization, with a mystery that more than lives up to its surrounding structure. I have a feeling I won’t wait another 30 years before reading this one again …

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.

Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.

Reality is not a linear construct

In Tana French’s The Witch Elm, the reader is left to wonder:
If you don’t remember something, did it really happen?

Last year, Tana French stepped away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery (published by Viking) that is less a conventional whodunit than an extended riff on the vagaries of memory and the mutability of character and personality. Toby is a 20-something social media manager for a Dublin art gallery when he suffers a traumatic brain injury during a robbery. Even after his physical injuries have healed, he struggles with anxiety and his lack of memory of the attack. In an attempt to re-focus his attention outward, he and his girlfriend Melissa move into Ivy House as companions to his favorite uncle, Hugo, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. When a dead man is discovered on the property, the family has to cope with police intrusion and the veil of suspicion that falls on all of them.

Toby comes across as a classic unreliable narrator — but is he really? Is he hiding things from the reader, or are things hidden from both the reader and himself by his own brain? If you don’t remember something, did it really happen? And who do you believe when you’re presented with alternate versions of events that you were involved in but cannot remember for yourself? It’s a fascinating puzzle, and French explores all the nuances as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.

When I originally reviewed this book, I was ambivalent about the ending, mainly in terms of certain characters not behaving in ways that were consistent with how they had presented throughout the novel. Shortly afterward, I found a terrific interview with Tana French on the always thought-provoking site Electric Lit. The article’s title, Tana French’s The Witch Elm Is an Exploration of White Male Privilege, is perhaps inevitable in the #MeToo era, but French’s central thesis is more nuanced than that headline suggests. As she says about conceiving the novel’s plot, “Mainly, I was thinking about the connection between luck and empathy. If we’ve been too lucky in one area of life, that can stunt our ability to empathize with people who haven’t been that lucky.” I’ve been guilty of this myself, assuming that because I found certain college classes easy that anyone who didn’t wasn’t trying hard enough. Not a good look, that!

I’ve enjoyed all of French’s books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but this book’s standalone status isn’t a letdown in any way. As regular readers of French know, the DMS series does not follow the same cast of characters throughout. Each book places a different detective at the center of the story, with their colleagues whom we’ve come to know in previous books appearing in passing or not at all. For me, that’s one of the aspects that keeps the series so fresh and lively, but it also means that The Witch Elm doesn’t seem like a big departure. It’s still a murder mystery in Dublin, only told from a point of view outside the police station.

So no, The Witch Elm isn’t technically part of that series, but it shares the genetic code that makes French’s previous work so compelling: A firm grasp on the intricacies of plotting a murder mystery, believable characters (not to be confused with likable, necessarily), and a gift for keen observation and description that bring the settings alive. More real than reality, in some ways. Whatever that may be.