Book Review: The Devil’s Feast

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu11/20/17
By M.J. Carter  •  It is the spring of 1842, four months since Avery and Blake concluded their adventures in “The Infidel Hand.” Avery has been called back to London from his home in Devon, to convince Blake to accept a commission from the powerbroker Sir Theophilus Collinson, who we first met in The Strangler Vine. Blake has refused and Collinson has forged documents purporting to show that Blake is in default on a debt of several hundred pounds. With this document, Collinson has had Blake arrested and sent to Marshalsea Prison, expecting to coerce him into cooperation. Avery tries to convince Blake to accept the job but Blake continues to refuse.

Blake’s stubbornness is not Avery’s only concern in London. He wishes to meet Matty, the young street urchin he and Blake rescued from the streets in “The Infidel Hand”, and see how she is getting on with  her job at the Reform Club, the political club located in the grandest building on Pall Mall. Blake arranged the job for Matty in the Club’s kitchen as he knows the head Chef Soyer, the most celebrated chef in England.

Avery checks on Matty, and also takes a tour of the kitchens which are the most modern and cleanest in the U.K. There he meets Soyer, who invites Avery to dine with him and a few friends in his private apartment later that evening.

The dinner is superb and all seems to have gone extremely well when, after the supper, one of the guests collapses in a hall. Enduring several painful hours the guest, Rowlands, dies and Avery stays at the club to insure things are properly taken care of as he believes Rowland has died of cholera.

The next morning, the Club’s governing committee asks if Avery might, with Blake, have a look into the death. It seems another member has died in a suspicious manner just a couple of weeks prior to Rowland. The Club cannot afford any scandal as Lord Palmerstone is hosting a huge party for the son of the Egyptian ruler, three days hence.

Avery advises that he is not sure he can contact Blake thus cannot make any promises. But the governing committee expresses their confidence in Avery’s abilities, even without Blake, so Avery is finally convinced to accept the job.

Thinking he has the perfect bait to lure Blake into acceding to Collinson’s requests, Avery marches back to Marshalsea. To his shock, Blake has escaped and no one has any idea where he might be.

Such is the somewhat complicated beginning of the latest M.J. Carter mystery, “The Devil’s Feast”.

The novel takes the reader through a culinary tour of mid 19th century English cooking, including a quick detour through some of the disgusting and unhealthy “nutritional” practices taking place at the time. These included adding numerous toxins to products in order to enhance appearance and flavor as well as adding chalk, sawdust and factory sweepings to increase bulk and weight. Still, the main attraction is murder.

In addition to those already mentioned, the cast of characters includes Soyer’s lieutenants in the culinary wars Percy, Morel and Perrin, various competitive chefs, and the governing committee of the Reform Club. Almost all of these characters, as well as many others, could be responsible for the murders of unfortunate Club members.

The story itself is believable and not overly complicated, but there are several weaknesses which one can also find in the previous Avery and Blake books.

The way Avery decides to go after the culprit is sometimes very illogical. And this ties in with my main complaint about the book. While Avery does appear to be a bit brighter and more intelligent in his proceedings, he can still be incredibly obtuse.  He often repeats mistakes and does things, which nobody who had has his experience could possibly do.  Thankfully, Blake makes up for Avery’s occasional idiocy.

As in her other two books, I believe Carter padded the content somewhat. The judicious deletion of perhaps fifty pages would have been just the ticket. On the other hand, it seems to me that Carter uses fewer adjectives in this novel and that is a good thing. While I am a great admirer of Dickens, who wrote as if he were paid a bonus for each adjective he used, modern writing, particularly modern detective stories, should be economical in the use of adjectives. Action is the ticket. Carter has improved in this area.

“The Devil’s Feast” is the best of the Avery/Blake novels, to date. Carter does more with less in that she does not clutter the book with needless traipsing back and forth across countless filthy lanes, avoiding stinking gutters, traveling through dark forests or vast expanses of India. She confines the story to the halls of the Reform Club with a few jaunts to food suppliers and Marshalsea. This is a good thing as she does not weary her reader with the maze of London’s streets or trunk roads in India. One does not have to continue to look at the inside cover map to have a sense of the characters’ locations.

All in all, I would recommend the book as worth reading. To my way of thinking, “The Devil’s Feast” is a perfect distraction from the pressures of everyday life. This is light reading with some educational value. One should not mistake it for history, but there are people and things mentioned, which did exist and take place, although not necessarily in the time frame covered by the book.

Carter writes well, but not beautifully. I believe she has it in her to achieve the latter and hope she surprises us in her next volume of the Avery and Blake mysteries.

Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. He is the silent-partner third member of the Blake & Avery team. • (236 views)

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8 Responses to Book Review: The Devil’s Feast

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I recall a high-school English teacher discussing Dickens’s writing style, which was partly a result of needing money — and he was paid by the word. Consider his discussion of “dead as a doornail” at the beginning of A Christmas Carol.

    This isn’t unusual. Early in his writing career, Erle Stanley Gardner was writing westerns for a penny a word. Someone noticed that his gunfights never ended after a single shot — and he explicitly pointed out his financial reason for making them last longer than that.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Paying writers by the word was common, especially in the case of nineteenth century periodicals.

    Dickens was especially guilty of overdoing his descriptions of everything, thus my reference about being paid for his adjectives. Still, he was a good enough writer to get away with this. Whereas most writers suffered from overwriting, it somehow became part of his style. That being said, I believe most of his books can be slightly improved with a bit of judicious editing.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    as well as adding chalk, sawdust and factory sweepings to increase bulk and weight.

    Doesn’t McDonald’s still do that with their milkshakes? I would swear this is so, especially the chalk.

    That’s a very well written review, Mr. Kung. You give us a sense of the story without giving too much away. Nice balance.

    As soon as I finish Shinju I will read this one. In Shinju, it’s getting to the place where I always thought it would be going. (And can’t say because that would be giving too much away.) And the author seems to enjoy including some strange sexual practices in her story, so this definitely isn’t a children’s book. Too bad, because it didn’t need it and it is otherwise a most informative book about that time period in Japan. But I guess there is a place for adult books as well.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Through two chapters it’s good. Avery had a brief tour of the kitchen. Makes you realize just what a revolutionary step that cleanliness was. Note: If you can change nothing else at all in your life, clean yourself and your abode up. Even in this day and age it’s often an issue.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      That’s one good thing about living in an extended-stay hotel: regular (in this case every two weeks) clean-up service at no extra charge.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    There might be some small spoilers in the following, but nothing at all that should effect your enjoyment. You knew this was a murder mystery, right? You didn’t really think one of the guests died from food poisoning or cholera.

    I’m 30% into “The Devil’s Feast.” I’m not blown away by it thus far. I imagine things will pick up a little when Blake joins Avery at the Reform Club to investigate the arsenic poisoning of one of the diners during a private dinner in Soyer’s office.

    I’m not sure why the existence of the tired plot point of Blake being in debtor’s prison because of a disagreement with one of his regular clients. The story could have easily established the darker side of Blake by Avery simply bailing him out of jail for some over-night drunk-and-disorderly confinement and then both moving on to the investigation. Perhaps Blake is working undercover in that prison. That’s certainly possible. I fully expect that he’s already gotten wind of the problems at the Reform Club and will surprise Avery by showing up in disguise as a low-level worker in the kitchen.

    Carter does do a graphically rich job of describing the horrid arsenic death of one of the diners. Otherwise, the cast of suspects is large and not particularly well-defined. We know to a large degree how they dress, but not much more. The obvious motivations for the current murder(s) are: disrupting the meeting with a high Egyptian prince; some radical-vs.-Whig power struggle as these two factions attempt to coalesce under the “Liberal” banner in Parliament; this two-party faction vs. some skullduggery by the Tories to try to weaken the coalition; internal grievances inside the the Reform Club; as-yet unknown motivations.

    There’s a pretty dumb scene with Avery as he tries to pry information out of Matty. Matty speaks frankly of the hanky-panky going on downstairs in the kitchens and Avery upbraids her for not speaking like a lady. Matty basically says, “Well…you asked.” This shows how Avery continues to be a catch-all character, some kind of voice through which the author speaks but not an independent and well-defined character on its own, if you will.

    Descriptions of Matty’s new situation are interesting. I hope Carter doesn’t turn her into just the perilous little girl at the mercy of the bad men all around her. I hope her character has more to offer than that. Matty is quite reluctant to do anything to rock the boat for herself at the Reform Club, and you can’t blame her. Again, Avery’s interview with her seems highly insensitive in this regard…but Carter demands that the plot must move on, I guess, despite a wonderful opportunity for some internal conflict amongst the good-guys in this novel as Matty is torn between fear of losing her job and fear of not uncovering a murderous plot in or around the club.

    Chef Soyer is the most fleshed-out character. He is a buoyant Steve-Job’s like egotist/optimist who has big plans for the world that extend quite beyond the kitchen (another obvious motivation for disrupting his reputation). He means to establish efficient food kitchens for the poor (not just a limousine liberal, you see) and his technological ideas have already been used to improve some hospitals. One would expect some Grand Scheme to be behind the poisoning but it could turn out to be no more than some disgruntled civil servant whose job (somewhere) is being threatened by Soyer’s innovations. I doubt this will be the outcome for generally we require grandiose, not plain, endings to such plots.

    It would be interesting to get some opinions of this book by some of the main cast of “America’s Test Kitchen.” The book does take you on a guided tour of some of the innovations in the Reform Club. Perhaps more effective would have been a description, via flashback or whatever, of the typical conditions that exist in English restaurants, particularly those in high-end clubs. But we can assume that average conditions were something the average diner (not quite unlike today in many places) would rather not know about while eating his dinner.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 58% into “The Devil’s Feast.” I should point out that there are some spoilers to follow. But I should also point out that this book’s interest isn’t about plot twists, at least as of yet. If I knew of the various major plot elements in the book up to this point, it would have made no difference in my enjoyment while reading it.

    Carter could indeed become a better writer. I don’t see it yet however. Avery remains fairly weak and ill-defined as a character. And the plot drags. Plot elements lack imagination. As I feared, Carter has turned Matty into (at this point) little more than a damsel in distress. She is being framed for the poisonings.

    Had I invented that character and carried her over from the previous book — where she was a gutter-poor street urchin eking out a living, in part, by being a police informant — I would have used her in the investigation. Balancing her need to not jeopardize her position in the kitchen with the real likelihood that further murders could wipe out the kitchen as a going concern, I would have had Blake enlist Matty to do some uncover work. She is street smart and could go places and see things that would be difficult for Avery. Instead, at the moment she is the primary suspect. I’m right at that point and I don’t know if the police will cart her away or not.

    And it could still happen that Matty becomes more of an active investigator. But that’s why I say it really wouldn’t matter if I told you ever single plot point in the book thus far. There is nothing particularly surprising, clever, or dramatic about it. The details of the restaurant (and various historical details) are the meat of the book, along with some interesting characters along the way, as well as Avery’s investigation. But it’s a slow plod through a thus far uninspired plot.

    But with Blake’s escape from debtor’s prison and coming to Avery’s aid (even if he has to play as his undercover servant) things are picking up. Still, there’s no real depth to the investigation. It’s as if the author is playing some kind of plot-element version of Russian roulette. She says a few words about some character that adds suspicion to that character, but then we learn no more and the chamber turns over and she puts the spotlight on some other character about whom a few aspersions are cast. The chamber turns again to another character, and so on. It’s all very surface-level and there’s often very little to distinguish one character from another. It becomes a blur.

    Some of the best Thorndyke novels, for example, show us a little of what is going on in the mind of other parties, such as “Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight” and a few others. And given that Thorndyke, Jarvis, et al, are not particularly dynamic characters, the stories need this. And so does “The Devil’s Feast.” It wouldn’t hurt to have some other thread running, even if the people in those threads must remain anonymous in order to keep the mystery going. But we might, for example, see into the affairs of the poisoner. Or we might flash back to earlier episodes in the kitchen where conflict seems the norm. Anything to take us beyond the plot-element version of Russian roulette.

    Hopefully with the setup of the story completed, we will see some welcome changes and just some overall variety to the story.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished “The Devil’s Feast” tonight. In short, I don’t recommend this book. If you want to sample some Blake-and-Avery, I’d suggest the second book in the series, The Infidel Stain.

    God help her, M. J. Carter can’t write a plot with some variety if her life depended upon it. There’s a basic framework here for a story, but she never fills out the framework. Consider that two of her most fleshed-out characters are underused (Mattie and Blake). Blake is in debtor’s prison by a hackneyed plot mechanism and doesn’t really enter into the story until about 1/3 of the way into it. And even when he does, he does so disguised as Avery’s manservant, thus blunting one of Carter’s better characters.

    There’s just such a lack of imagination regarding basic storytelling. There is so little variety in this one.

    For just a few moments, Avery does take on a vestige of personality when his unhappy wife gives him a surprise visit. But even this side-story is badly written and eventually goes nowhere. There is no resolution or even a satisfying continuation of hostilities.

    I have the feeling that the writer has spent a lot of time researching Chef Soyer, his kitchen, and basic (and only basic) aspects of the Reform Club. She does the best job fleshing out the kitchen and Soyer who is a believable 3-dimensional character, unlike the 1-dimensional Avery. And like a very low-budget sci-fi film (and we’ve all seen one) which has blown most of its budget on the main spaceship (spaceport, space dock, alien ship, whatever) set, 90% of the time is spent shooting scene after scene on that set.

    “The Devil’s Feast” has that same feeling. She’s put the time in to get to know Soyer and the kitchen and then spends an inordinate amount of time circling the plot there, really going nowhere and offering very little variety. Mattie, a charming and fleshed-out personality in “The Infidel Stain” is reduced almost to window dressing. A time or two she has some good dialogue with Avery but is but in pawn in the story when she would have been most interesting as an active part of it.

    There is the beginning of the telling of the tale of Soyer feeding the poor via his new methods. But this aspect is too little, too late. There were plenty of opportunities to feature more of the upstairs/downstairs element, but we rarely see any kind of scene set in the upstairs that might give us the flavor of day-to-day life in the club.

    And several story lines (such as the beating of the boys by the one kitchen bully) are left unresolved and forgotten. And I had to chuckle when Avery had an instant bought of stupidity near the end when approached by the young girl, Margaret, with some vital information. Avery and Blake at that point were running out of time and desperate for any lead they could get. But Avery suddenly just didn’t have the time to listen to her even as she was volunteering information.

    There is no feeling here of someone with his or her hands on the reins regarding an overall skillful direction of plot and characters. The research is no doubt solid. The best parts of the book are about Soyer and his kitchen — so much so that I suppose that scrapping this work of fiction and writing a keen biography might have been the better route.

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