The Devil's Feast by M. J. Carter is the 3rd book in the Blake and Avery series in which the investigative team find themselves entangled in a case involving political conflicts, personal vendettas, and England’s first celebrity chef.
“…Sins, Captain Avery, sins express real truths about men. And every profession, it seems to me, has its typical sin. A version of what we in France call its déformation professionelle. For you soldiers, Captain, the sin is anger. For a soldier, anger is so tempting, is it not? Because it is not always a sin. Sometimes, a man must be angry in order to fight, non? And we know in our hearts that it is easier to feel anger than to feel fear. Somebody watching a kitchen in full service might think that there is much anger in a kitchen. The heat and the urgency produce this. But anger is not the chef's besetting sin. You might then conclude that it must be gluttony, since all of our days we are surrounded by enticements to eat and drink. But this too is not so. The chief sin of the chef and the kitchen, Captain Avery, is envy.”
London, 1842. Captain Avery, a soldier who made his name fighting tigers and wars in India, hasn't been in England long before getting mixed up in another mystery. His partner in crime, Jeremiah Blake, has been thrown into the debtors prison on a trumped-up charge—all because Blake refuses to accept the latest commission from his tyrannical patron, Collinson.
This alone should be enough to worry Avery, who has tried to convince his stubborn friend to submit to no avail.
Then, an unexpected invitation to an exclusive dinner at the Reform Club—home to London's most infamous and renowned kitchen—ends in violent death. Due to his reputation, Avery is pressed by the club members to get to the bottom of things.
Did the man die as a result of cholera, as they fervently hope, or was he purposefully poisoned by something at the meal?
Turns out there's a lot more than just the club's reputation at stake: within days, the Reform Club is to host an incredibly important state dinner on the behalf of an Egyptian prince. It would be rather hard to explain the situation to the Prime Minister if the visiting nobleman or any of his entourage was to suddenly expire over dessert.
Avery quickly finds himself utterly out of his element. Not only is he a Tory amidst Whigs and radicals, but the Reform kitchen is the domain of the world's very first celebrity chef: Alexis Soyer. The passionate Frenchman is not only a genius in the culinary arts and an incredible showman, he's also a keen inventor and avid expounder on nutritional improvements for the poor. Soyer's kitchen is full of his technological advancements, every department run like a military brigade, and is a breeding ground for a number of hostilities, rivalries, and ambitions.
Without the vastly more observant, canny, and deductive Blake to guide him, Avery worries he might not be up to this challenge.
To make matters even muddier, it seems nearly impossible to track just how and when the victims were afflicted. Is someone adding the poison in the kitchen, as the plates are being delivered to the tables, or did the men unknowingly kill themselves with their own so-called health tonics? Were they chosen purposefully or at random? As Avery learns, danger lurks in unexpected places…
“The truth is that, even in the most excellent kitchens, such as this plainly is,” said Wakley enthusiastically, “contamination may sneak in. …For decades, chalk and alum have been added to bread, and burned corn and peas ground up to make coffee. Vinegar is rendered sharper by the addition of sulfuric acid, arrowroot is added to milk to thicken it, mustard is eked out with flour, strychnine is added to beer to add bitterness, and green vitriol to encourage a foaming head. And these are but the harmless manipulations.”
“Good heavens!” I said. “Strychnine and vitriol in beer?”
“And in gin, too. Enough to impart hallucinations and a nasty disruption of the bowels. And I have seen far worse: Indian berry—very toxic—added to beer to make it more intoxicating. Custard flavored with laurel—a mortal poison. Pepper made from floor sweepings, comfits from china clay. Double Gloucester cheese colored with red lead. Lead, copper, mercury, arsenic—deadly, all—they are everywhere. I myself can attest that lead salts taste quite delicious.”
“Why is nothing done?” I said.
“Because we are ruled by noodles and knaves, and we mindlessly follow the religion of free trade to its most dangerous conclusions!” shouted Wakley, making us all start.
Details reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which definitely make you grateful for the FDA.
In her 3rd Avery and Blake mystery, M.J. Carter lets Avery have full free reign for most of the story, with Blake completely out of the picture for the first half of the proceedings. Though he may not quite have his older partner's flair for investigation, the brave Captain is still a likable, well-intentioned, and methodical hero. His troubles with wife Helen only grow here, as does his exasperation with the bullheaded Blake.
The real spotlight stealer is Chef Soyer—a historical figure who was indeed the first celebrity chef, on par with Gordon Ramsey. A colorful, often comedic man with a flair for the dramatic and an unceasingly inventive mind, he not only whips up twelve course meals of crazy delicacies—including cakes shaped like roast mutton and potatoes—but also pioneers the first gas stoves, sink strainers, and portable ovens.
“I am Alexis Soyer, the architect of this extraordinary enterprise. Here, you witness history. Here, we employ dozens of technical innovations which I have perfected in order to create hundreds of dishes every day, and we ensure that each one is produced perfectly and served in precisely the correct state, and at precisely the correct temperature, as I intended when first I invented it. What you see here is not merely novelty but the triumph of science, the kitchen of the future.”
The audience applauded enthusiastically.
“Three thing are of immeasurable importance in this place. One is cleanliness. Cleanliness is the soul of the kitchen,” he said, wagging his spoon. “This kitchen is the cleanest you will ever see. The second is timing. You will see clocks on every wall. In cooking, precise timing is the difference between perfection and failure. Finally, there is the precise control of temperature. Here we command the elements: fire, water, and air in the form of gas and steam; and earth in the form of coal and charcoal. Ladies and gentlemen, in this kitchen, we are alchemists, magicians even.”
He runs from dawn to midnight with nary a pause, overseeing every dinner at his restaurant, setting up soup kitchens for the poor, and competing with rival chefs for glory and riches. His kitchen is a character in its own right, stocked with all manner of chefs, under chefs, scullery boys, and kitchen maids who run the full gamut of personality. It's rife with drama and a dozen juicy suspects.
Carter's historical detail is, as always, atmospheric and authoritative. London of the 1840s springs off the pages, with all of its Victorian social mores and rigid class structures. Real figures—among them Lord Palmerston, author W.M. Thackery, and Thomas Wakley, the founding editor of The Lancet medical journal—rub elbows with entirely fictitious characters who feel just as three-dimensional and layered.
The Devil's Feast is that rare book that will appeal to both fans of historical whodunits and Julia Child aficionados. It's as engrossing for its history of the culinary arts and peek into the hot-blooded kitchens of the fine-dining world as for the central murder mystery. All in all, a most satisfying read.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.