Who is poisoning the politicians of London’s Reform Club? Surely not its celebrity chef, Alexis Soyer, whose spotless kitchen is a miracle of Victorian modernity—those faucets with instant hot water! Those gas ranges with adjustable flames! It sounds like another case for famed investigative duo Avery and Blake.
It’s with a sense of panic that Capt. William Avery, the Watson to Jeremiah Blake’s Sherlock Holmes, probes a mysterious death at England’s renowned, gentlemen-only Reform Club in 1842. Accidentally present at one of Soyer’s lavish private dinners and thus witness to the agonizing demise of a Whig Member of Parliament, Avery is asked by the club to pursue a discreet investigation, unfortunately without Blake (who has temporarily disappeared) to help him. Soon, upright but plodding military hero Avery is floundering, faced with many—too many—cooks and other suspects, from Russian spies plotting against a crucial upcoming diplomatic banquet at the club to Soyer’s rivals, his suppliers, factions within the club, and feuders in the kitchen. This is Carter’s (The Infidel Stain, 2016, etc.) third Avery and Blake adventure, and once again the author revels in her research, evoking another Dickensian vista of Victorian London where the food is adulterated by chemicals, arsenic is an everyday tonic, the rich dine like kings, and debtors languish at the miserable Marshalsea Prison. Again, though, the originality and derring-do which marked the sleuthing duo’s first appearance—in Colonial India, in The Strangler Vine (2014)—are absent, replaced by an overcrowded cast of characters, an excess of speculative to-and-fro, and a disappointing villain. Readers sensing predictability can, however, console themselves with luscious accounts of period foodie feasts: “Tender cubes of hare in a blood sauce…a small, flaky pastry cup of mackerel roe and little molded meat jellies of rice and lamb’s tails."
Too many red herrings and not enough good red meat.