Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murder -- with recipes?

The Body in the Ivy by Katherine Hall Page was recommended to me because I love to interpret the meaning of food in mystery and detective fiction. Page takes this to a new level -- Faith Fairchild is an amateur detective and a caterer. The details of her meals and food ideas are far beyond what I think one needs to set the stage for several murders and their detection.

As far as I'm concerned, Fairchild's cooking is more believable than her detecting, which isn't much more penetrating than Nancy Drew. In the back of the book, in fact, one finds recipes: Asian Noodles with Crabmeat, Boeuf Bourguignon, Fennel Soup, Rhubarb Crumble, and Pelham Fudge Cake (named for Pelham, the fictitious women's school at the center of the story). These are among the very dishes Fairchild made for the island visitors who were gathered in an Agatha-Christie-country-house-like setting to solve a murder mystery leftover from their college days in the 1960s.

Yes, the author dropped Christie's name often. She is obsessed with brand names and what their users mean by using them. See the book cover I included with this review? That's what I kept thinking about: The Preppy Handbook, from 1980, which describes the Ivy-league millieu in which the original murder took place, the types of people who are guilty or suspected, and their brands of clothing, shoes, cars, depatment stores, and sports equipment. I recognized most of them. It's more than just stereotyped. The modern day parts of the book are nearly as brand-conscious as the flashbacks, but it seems slightly less forced. Faith Fairchild's food is also stereotyped -- sounds like the Silver Palate Cookbook.

My main problem with the book isn't the excessive stereotyping, as that's a common feature of some detective fiction. It's the lack of a clear point of view. In the middle of a passage about Fairchild's catering decisions, there's a reference to page 322 where you can get the fudge cake recipe; later, reference is made to the other recipes. This isn't a post-modern book, so the self-referential "this is a book with book apparatus" thing is very distracting. And instead of having Fairchild-as-detective pry stories out of the gathered suspects -- brought together artificially by the owner of the country house -- the author has alternate flashback chapters. These cover the college lives of each character, told omnisciently. Another viewpoint: the murders that take place during the story are told as experienced by each victim, but the passages don't reveal who the murderer was. I hate authors who do that, though I admit Agatha Christie was one of the worst.

All that trendy food just doesn't do enough for me to make up for what I see as the other deficiencies of the book. But I'm nevertheless grateful to my friend who recommended it. Next year, I resolve to try some additional food-themed mystery authors.

1 comment:

Mediterranean kiwi said...

i love your book review commentaries - and i also love your food ideas