This historical crime novel set in the 1840s is the third “Avery and Blake mystery,” although I had not read the first two books in the series. Thus I had a bit of difficulty sorting out who was who and what was what at the beginning. Therefore I began by skipping ahead to the “Historical Afterword,” which did help me at least make sense of the characters who were based on authentic people.
As the story begins, Captain William Avery is visiting Jeremiah Blake, his usual partner in detective consulting jobs. Blake has landed in jail for a debt he refuses to pay, and he also refuses to let anyone else pay it for him. Avery ends up investigating a crime on his own at first, and is feeling Blake’s absence acutely. (These two appear to have been modeled on Holmes and Watson. It is Blake who is the “Holmes” of the two: very skilled at observation, forensic science, and logical reasoning.)
It seems there have been a series of poisonings at the Reform Club, a gentleman’s club for radical MPs that was famous historically for its food. The kitchen was overseen by Alexis Soyer (1810-1858), who, according to the author in her Afterword, was “the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant, inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist.”
Avery is pressured to find the perpetrator quickly since the Reform Club is getting ready to host an important diplomatic banquet ordered and organized by Lord Palmerston for Ibrahim Pasha, the Prince of Egypt. Palmerston insisted they not cancel the banquet because “peace depended upon it.”
The situation is made more critical for Avery because Matty, a young girl Avery and Blake rescued from the streets, is now working in the kitchen, and has become a suspect. Somehow Avery has to get Blake to assist him and find out who the culprit is.
In the process, Avery has to check out a lot of food, much of which would be anathema in modern times. Moreover, the amounts of food consumed at dinners and banquets (while the poor languished and starved) was pretty jaw-dropping. I wouldn’t have thought some of the diners would have needed poison to expire; overeating and/or heart attacks could have easily done the trick!
Discussion: The politics in the book are complicated – perhaps more so for Americans than for British readers. But I especially enjoyed learning about Alexis Soyer, who, it seems, not only invented a number of ingenious contraptions for cooking and serving food, but also developed advancements for running soup kitchens for the poor, and invented a portable army stove that continued to be in use until the 1950’s.
I also enjoyed learning about the historical character of Thomas Wakley, the founding editor of the still-respected medical journal “The Lancet.” I did not know he was apparently the first great campaigner against the adulteration of food, which was quite common (and in a very unhealthy way) in the Victorian era.
It’s always fun to learn history while being titillated by a mystery.
Evaluation: My rating wasn’t higher because I did have some trouble following this book, reading it as a standalone. The characters had a history, and the politics were complex. But now that I am familiar with the characters, I wouldn’t hesitate to continue with the series.
Published in the U.S. by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016