The Devil's Feast by M J Carter

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The Devil's Feast by M J Carter

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: This is a gripping, well-written crime novel set in early-Victorian London, which sees Blake and Avery interacting with real historical figures. Although it's the third in a series it stands reasonably well on its own.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Fig Tree
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241146361

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London, the early 1840s: the newly-opened Reform Club is the focal point for the Liberal elite, where Whigs and Radicals can co-exist in harmony. Or such was the intention. With a celebrity chef in its up to the minute kitchen, however, the club seems to have more of a reputation for its dinners than its politics, and when a man dies horribly after eating one the Reform could have a problem on its hands. Particularly when it begins to look like murder. Luckily William Avery agrees to look into the matter with some urgency, but – as everyone keeps asking him – where on earth is his professional investigator friend Jeremiah Blake?

The Devil's Feast is the third novel in the Blake and Avery series, and although it's the first one I've read I didn't feel too left behind. There are enough references to past exploits to pick up on the situation and the hint of a Holmes and Watson type relationship between the two men, and to appreciate the way the young soldier Avery is floundering without the older and more experienced investigator Blake. The political rivalries in the club, the usual frayed tempers in a busy kitchen, and an important forthcoming dinner give Avery so many avenues to explore that he can only do his best to be methodical and hope Blake might turn up.

The methodical investigation fits in well with the feeling of the triumph of science and reason in the book. There are carefully-executed post mortem examinations, and new tests in the area we would call forensics. Alexis Soyer, the chef at the Reform, is a perpetual inventor of kitchen gadgets and is tremendously proud of the cleanliness and efficiency of his modern kitchen. Soyer, one of the main characters, was in fact a real person, a sort of Jamie Oliver of his day. Alongside his famous work at the Reform he tried to show how the poor can have nutritious food cheaply, he set up soup kitchens and wrote cookery books, as well as taking on waifs and strays in his kitchens. All of which come into play in this novel.

I had heard of Alexis Soyer in passing, and I recognised the names of other characters (and failed to recognise yet others). The history was bent to fictional use but it was skillfully done, no in-your-face research, and it made me go look into the real history a little once I'd finished the book, to see where the line between fact and fiction came. My one quibble was with the prologue which I found a bit gruesome and off-putting, but which was largely unrepresentative of the rest of the book. I thought the atmosphere of both the busy kitchen and the languorous club (and the contrast between above and below stairs) were captured well. There is a real sense of tension throughout the book and some moments of humour as well.

I think Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy The Devil's Feast, and vice versa so you could treat yourself to Sherlock: The Essential Arthur Conan Doyle Adventures by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or move onto the previous Blake and Avery novel The Infidel Stain by M J Carter.

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