There’s a whole genre of “literature” that is referred to as “cozies”. Wikipedia defines it as: “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Most “gourmet” or “chef” mysteries fall into the category.
I enjoy them in general; they’re light, easy reading, perfect for, say, a vacation. I’d say they usually fall into one of two styles – either where the detective him or herself (almost always him, but that may just be reflective of the odds in the profession) is the gourmet, and food is an integral part of their existence – oft-times it plays into the solving of whatever mystery (almost always a murder) is at hand. The other style is chef oriented, and usually involves a chef in a small cafe of some sort, a caterer, or a food writer, who steps outside their daily tasks and gets heavily involved in the solving the crime (again, almost always a murder) – it’s a bet that at some point a) they (almost always a woman) will be regarded as a suspect by the big, bad detective (still almost always a him), usually because they either discover the body or were the last person to see the victim alive (think Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?); b) will get themselves into deep trouble and have to be rescued by same detective; and c) will end up in some sort of personal relationship with same detective.
Pure serendipity, I ran across a sextet (with a seventh on the way) of these that have made for good vacation reading fare. By Lucy Burdette, they’re set in Key West, and the protagonist is a budding restaurant critic.
Fun, enjoyable, swift paced read. Pretty much follows my outline above to a “T”. Wannabe restaurant critic becomes the suspect in the poisoning murder of the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Much brouhaha and back and forth. Supportive friends who bizarrely encourage her to investigate the murder on her own because… mean detective. Someone tries to kill her. No one seems to really believe her, including her friends who now aren’t so sure that she isn’t making it all up and maybe she shouldn’t be investigating on her own (you guys talked her into it!). Lots of food descriptions, even some recipes. Gets herself into hot water with the actual murderer as she closes in on the solution. All the pieces fall into place. Resolution. Happy, happy. I know I’m making it sound trite, and on some level it is, but it’s not supposed to be anything more than a fun, easy read, and it fulfills on that.
I’m not going to review each individual book in the series, although the details change, there’s a certain sameness to each one. I’d like to say that over the course of the six books (seventh being released soon), our protagonist developed from an intrepid to an experienced food critic, and while lip-service is paid to that idea, if you pay attention, there’s really no evolution of her abilities, food knowledge, or much of anything. She repeats the same mistakes, over and over – on a personal level, constantly going for supporting the suspect (who, of course, in the end, turns out not to be the murderer, vindicating her gut feelings), over the counsel of family, friends, and most importantly, whichever gentleman is her current love interest – leading to romantic dissolution, repeatedly.
It’s in the food area that things fall most short – she’s got a palate that’s straight out of Lady’s Home Journal cerca 1968, and presents recipes that likely found their way into the typical church social group annual recipe books of the same era (pimiento cheese dip is apparently the pinnacle of sophistication). She rolls her eyes and makes snide remarks about “those wine people”, apparently not familiar with the term sommelier, or the possibility that knowing something about wine might be part of her job as a restaurant critic. She sneers, well, the word choice is “snickers” (more times than I care to count, really, this woman just walks around snickering all the time) at the use of any unusual ingredient or technique (apparently no one but a few pretentious chefs has any interest whatsoever in the world of modernist cooking, no diner would actually eat that food), opining that no normal person would be interested in eating, tasting, or knowing about anything other than the safe choices of everyday fare.
I’d say that this comes down to one of two situations – either the author wants her principal character to come across as a rube – unthinking and uninterested in learning – basically presenting her as a brand new, wet behind the ears, budding food critic who has absolutely zero interest in becoming better at her job, expanding her knowledge base, or, really, anything but dispensing opinions on topics which she a) freely admits she knows nothing about and b) is completely confident that despite her lack of so much as a shred of expertise, is right about; or, and more likely, it’s a reflection of the attitudes and grasp of the author.
Does that make them less fun to read? No. Though for someone who is intimately involved in the food and beverage world, it’s moderately annoying at various moments.