“The Devil’s Feast” by M. J. Carter plays off Anthony Bourdain’s quote, “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk… food has always been an adventure.”
Carter had the idea for the story because of “an illness I had for the past few years that has to do with my digestion.
“I could not eat, so I became very interested in reading about food,” Carter said. “I was feeling sorry for myself because of all these foods I could not eat. In the course of my research I encountered Alexis Soyer, the famous chef. I decided to write a story around him and what better way to have someone die than with poison.”
And so it is with this story that involves England’s first celebrity chef and a mysterious death, poisoned at the renowned Reform Club. The plot has Capt. William Avery invited to dine at the private table of the famous chef, Alexis Soyer. After one of the guests at the table dies he is asked to investigate. As the suspects pile up, everyone involving food appears to be a person of interest from meat suppliers to waiters.
Finding parallels with today’s world, Carter told of incorporating “the idea of the celebrity chef who had tantrums when he did not get his way. I also think the past should not be a foreign country so I included the idea of people dying by being poisoned. In the 1840s arsenic was everywhere, on cake decorations and even the dye on children’s dresses.”
Readers will find out about Soyer’s life, and it becomes obvious the author spent a lot of time researching the food entries, maybe a bit too much. There is a lot of detail about the inner workings of the kitchen run by celebrity Alexis Soyer who is not only an incredible chef, but the inventor of many innovations. Having come to prominence in the 1840s, Soyer is nicknamed the “Napoleon of food,” a culinary genius who loves to self-promote, a la today’s chef, Gordon Ramsey.
This first celebrity chef fascinated the author.
“He was the first to use gas ovens, thermometers, accurate clocks and clever kitchen gadgets,” Cater said. “Determined to improve the country’s diet and alleviate the sufferings of the poor, he devised menus for London hospitals and workhouses, reinventing the soup kitchen.
“For me, he was a gift since he was sometimes a ridiculous figure, manically energetic, crazily ambitious and dreadfully pretentious. Everything I wrote about him in this book is what he did in real life, including the way he dressed in lavender-colored velvet suits. After becoming chef de cuisine at London’s Reform Club it turned into, not a political association, but a place where males went to hide from their wives, have a fancy dinner, and have conversations.”
This series has two protagonists that usually work together. However, in this novel Avery is mainly on his own, struggling to solve the case, while thinking for himself. His partner, Jeremiah Blake chafes at being considered a hired hand and refuses a new assignment from Theophilus Collinson, a very influential person. Claiming that Blake was already paid for work not performed, Collinson has the stubborn detective arrested and imprisoned for debt. This leaves Avery to solve the case of why diners are dying at the prestigious Reform Club.
If readers think of the comparison with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, the author says not so, “I did not get my inspiration from the famous investigative duo. Patrick O’ Brian’s sea stories is what influenced me. He writes such great relationships between his characters, Aubrey and Maturin. At least consciously I never thought of Holmes and Watson.”
At the heart of this novel is Soyer whose personality dominates the other characters. Readers will be taken on a tour, able to taste the dinner dishes as they attempt to solve the murder mystery.