Taste California Travel reviews mostly non-fiction works on wine and food. Occasionally, the book section deals with travel topics, too, as befits our identity. Rarely, if ever, do we review works of fiction. However . . .
Murder from Scratch is a mystery. Its protagonist, Sally Solari, owns a restaurant in Santa Cruz, California and that in itself is enough to make it appropriate enough for our consideration. People enjoy mysteries for all sorts of reasons--sometimes to revel in their complex plots and litanies of potential criminals (usually murderers) and other times because of the personalities of the characters and the worlds they inhabit.
Having become an avid reader of mysteries in recent years, your reviewer particularly enjoys the latter aspect. For him, exploring the characters and their surroundings is more fun than trying to unravel a complex plot and identify the evil-doer a few pages before the inevitable drawing room denouement.
Introducing the reader to an interesting personality and that character’s world isn’t always easy. In striving to create interesting environments, authors sometimes overreach, revealing their lack of knowledge of the time and circumstances of the mood they’re seeking to create. Not so for Leslie Karst’s Murder from Scratch.
The author lives in Santa Cruz. Karst practiced law before beginning her writing career. She is a graduate of Stanford Law School and a culinary school as well. Her character Sally Solari is a former lawyer, who left the practice of law to enter the restaurant business and owns Gauguin, a Santa Cruz restaurant whose menu leans toward a Polynesian interpretation of French cuisine. Selections from a collection of mainstream 50’s jazz albums play a role in the consideration of whether a presumed drug overdose might actually have been a murder. Karst dedicates her book to her “cool cat dad . . . who first played Frank. Ella, and Mel for me on his hi-fi.”
A CV like Leslie Karst’s may not be required to write a book about the restaurant business, but Murder from Scratch would seem to demonstrate that she knows what she’s talking (writing) about. Could a nit-picker spot something not ringing true? Perhaps, but I did not. The author has created a credible picture of at least one slice of the restaurant business in California.
Sally’s father is also a restaurateur. He operates a more traditional establishment, Solari’s, an Italian seafood house located on Santa Cruz’ Municipal Wharf. When a local woman is found dead, Sally learns from her dad that the deceased was related to their family—albeit in a somewhat distant connection. The body was discovered by her daughter, Evelyn, a blind community college student still living at home. The senior Solari talks Sally into taking the girl under her wing until longer-term arrangements can be made. It becomes apparent that Evelyn is not as limited as Sally might have first thought. She enjoys food and has some cooking skills, too. Convinced that her mother would not have caused her own demise by either deliberate or inadvertent drug overdose, Evelyn draws Sally into a closer look at her mother’s life and those around her who might have preferred her dead. All of them are involved in the area’s restaurant community and Leslie Karst’s skillful involvements of these characters brings a feeling of authenticity to the story.
Murder from Scratch succeeds as a traditional mystery. All the elements are there— an intriguing plot with a (possible) murder, and enough suspects to keep you guessing. While the restaurant business has relevance to motives of some of the characters, Karst’s narrative also brings the pleasures of food—both from those preparing it and those consuming it—to her readers. A curious, but not unwelcome, addition are several recipes attributed to the fictional Sally Solari and her restaurant, Gauguin, as well as to the family of her houseguest Evelyn.
--Reviewed by Dan Clarke