Friday, May 6, 2016

Dying for a Taste by Leslie Karst

I count a fair number of mystery writers among my friends and acquaintances by now, most of whom I've originally discovered through their connection to the mystery and crime writing world. But my friendship with Leslie Karst long predates her writing a mystery novel, though probably not before her aspirations to be a writer blossomed.

So it's with an almost family kind of pride that I've watched her journey through writing a manuscript, getting an agent, and finding a publisher. Dying for a Taste was published last month and a couple of weekends ago I attended a very fun book signing at the local wine bar Soif, a fitting venue for a food centered mystery.

Sally Solari is a retired lawyer who has found herself back in the family's Italian restaurant on Santa Cruz's wharf. She's formed a close friendship with her Aunt Letta, who has otherwise moved away from the family and opened a restaurant of her own, Gauguin, which serves a more innovative menu than the traditional Solari's.

But the opening pages of the novel reveal that Aunt Letta has been stabbed to death in her own restaurant, and her head chef is the prime suspect. Sally can't believe this of Javier, who was more like an adopted son to Letta than an employee, and soon finds herself involved in trying to prove him innocent.

Over the course of the novel, Sally discovers that the aunt she thought she knew so well hadn't shared many aspects of her past with her niece. Turns out there are plenty of other suspects that might let Javier off the hook.

In an interview Karst did with our local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, she refers to the book as a "snarky cozy", describing it in the traditional cozy vein "but it's a little edgy." It is also a culinary mystery, finishing off with some recipes referred to in the book. At her signing, Karst mentioned that even the more casually described instances of cooking are recipes you can follow to create the items she mentions. As she holds a degree in culinary arts in addition to her law degree, I think you can take her word on that, and as someone who dined on some of her fine meals, I definitely think you should.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book for me was the way Karst nails the Santa Cruz setting, not only with many lovely descriptions of the actual environs here on the Central Coast, but also the complex dynamics of the town. Like Karst I came to college to go to the university here, and like so many others, we never really left. But beyond the university and the more liberal aspects of the town, there has always been an older layer, and Karst nicely captures the longstanding Italian-American community here, whose  hard work in the fishing and canning industries  long predates the coming of the university. And "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" is not the credo of all it's citizens.

Dynamics around food issues and animal activism also play a role, and in general the novel provides a nice snapshot of our cultural moment, at least as it plays out on the Left Coast.

I thoroughly enjoyed this satisfying tale, and look forward to the next, which is already in the works. Now all I have to do is find someone to cook those recipes for me...

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