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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Devil’s Feast by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 432 pages, $26

“The Devil’s Feast” is the third book in the Blake and Avery series, channeling Holmes and Watson. Set in India in the early 1800s, the first book in the series, “The Strangler Vine,” was exotic and inventive. Unfortunately, M. J. Carter then brought her heroes back to England, and the series lost its color, literally. Grey, clanking, smog-bitten, clamoring, intolerant Victorian England sucked the life out of the series, and it became merely a Holmes/Watson wannabe. I know my opinion is too harsh on the second book, but it is because I enjoyed the first one so much. The elements that made it so attractive had been left far behind. So “The Devil’s Feast” had to fight an uphill battle.

Mostly the battle was successful.

Jeremiah Blake is a man with a reticent nature. To his friends, he has only parsimoniously revealed elements of his peripatetic childhood and the immediate years after. There is no doubt that he is a brilliant man. He is also a cynic, an independent thinker, a recluse, and blunt. He met Captain William Avery when both were working for the East India Company in less than ideal circumstances. Their boss, Sir Theophilus Collinson, also returned to England, to a position of power within a shadowy government organization, and he has been using unprincipled means to get Blake to work for him. As a matter of fact, when this story opens, he has had Blake put into Marshalsea Prison, the infamous debtors’ prison, to coerce him into investigating a case.

Captain William Avery, on the other hand, has settled down to life on a gentleman’s farm in Devon with his young wife and newborn son. In the first book, William pined for Helen and somehow managed to woo her into marriage. “Be careful what you wish for” should be pinned on his lapel. Their rural life and demands of their new infant do not suit Helen’s temperament. It was with a mixture of reluctance and relief that Avery traveled to London to try to convince Blake to accede to Collinson’s demands.

Unsuccessful at convincing Blake, Avery is on the point of returning to his family when he meets the famous French chef, Alexis Soyer, and is invited to dine with him. Although the dinner is more fabulous than anything Avery has ever tasted, it is the last dinner for one of the other guests. He expires from arsenic poisoning. 

Without Blake, Avery is barely up to the task of doing preliminary investigation. He is at sea. He pleads for Blake’s help, but is devastated to learn that Blake might have been injured or murdered by a ruffian sent to kill him in the prison. Whichever Blake’s fate, he has disappeared. Unable to turn down Soyer’s appeals, Avery attempts to out the poisoner by himself.

Soyer works in one of the many gentlemen’s clubs that proliferated then. Many of them were based around a common interest. In the case of the Reform Club, the members are Radicals and Whigs who are attempting to join forces to overturn rule by the conservative Tory party. Avery is a Tory. Nevertheless, the causes of justice and honor override political affiliation. Avery’s client is the club council. So if Soyer is the poisoner, then Soyer must be caught.

Carter has the knack of wrapping a good story within an interesting historical context. Could the poisoner have a grudge against the political aim of the club? Or is it a rival chef? Is it a disgruntled kitchen employee? A club member who had it in for the dead man? Someone who didn’t like Soyer’s dessert marzipan trickily shaped like a lamb chop?

Although I do not understand the art of cooking, I certainly admire those who do. Who among you has not watched even a sliver of one of the multitudinous cooking or eating shows available? Haven’t you watched Gordon Ramsey or Ina Garten or Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali rhapsodize about a dish? You don’t have to be a foodie to become entranced by Carter’s description of Soyer’s kitchen, so modern for that time. You don’t have to be a fan of “Upstairs Downstairs” to appreciate the class system at work in the great Reform Club. But you would be the ideal reader if you were.

From the splendor of decadent, multi-course banquets to the ordure and miasma of Spitalfields Market, Carter’s characters embark on a journey via the food of London, while they also navigate the politics of the times. This was a journey I enjoyed. Even though it redeemed the series, I would so welcome an excuse for Carter’s characters to return to India, an environment she describes so well.

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