by Kung Fu Zu 11/20/17
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)