Book Review

Devil’s Feast, by M. J. Carter

Alexis-Benoit-Soyer-FB

This is not the sort of book I would generally feel was worthy of review; it is not a biography (but see below, to explain the main image), but a workmanlike murder mystery set in Victorian times, published by Penguin Books, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-241-96688-4), and although the pace is somewhat stodgy, it is a decent enough read, with the culprit not being revealed until very near the end; also, the contemporary historical detail, including the political climate of the time, seems authentic; what interested me, once I had finished the book (with only a small sigh of relief) was the historical afterword. This explains that a few of the characters, and most of the places in the story really existed, although the timeline has been adjusted in places, to suit the narrative.

The setting is London, and the primary location is the Reform Club, which was set up in 1837 by a group of Radical MPs (I am shamelessly lifting these details from the book), including one William Molesworth, one of our characters. There was some tension between the Radicals and the Whigs, who later formed the main body of the Liberal Party, but these comprised the membership of the Reform; Molesworth remained a Radical all his life and was the only one to serve in the Liberal government of 1853. An added element of tension, albeit very mild, is injected into the story as one of the ‘sleuths’, ex-East India Army Captain William Avery, is a Devon Tory by birth and conviction (so thereby treated with some suspicion or even hostility by some of the club’s Committee), which seems somewhat odd, given that he is a man of modest means & upbringing; although that is possibly to judge him too much by current standards?

When the Reform Club’s grand new building opened in Pall Mall in 1841, its kitchens were dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”: the most modern & advanced of their kind, and thousands were able to take tours of them. Credited with the excellent reputation of these kitchens, in no small part because he invented numerous “practical, ingenious ideas”: cooking paraphernalia as well as pioneering the use of gas as a cooking method; a Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, 1810-1858, “was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist … part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver.” Throughout his time at the Reform Club, Soyer had a stormy relationship with its Committee: he was censured for insolence and, in 1844, for financial dishonesty, when he was accused (although he was not alone in that) of having falsified the butcher’s account; despite a vote of the Committee to sack him being narrowly lost, he resigned anyway. Another of this story’s characters, the club Chairman, Sir Marcus Hill, was able to use his influence & careful management to get Soyer reinstated; however, the matter “left a permanent bitterness in the relations with the club.”

Three are several murders in the story, although not all are initially interpreted as such, and the second of the pair of sleuths, albeit the more proficient of the two, Jeremiah Blake, is not able to participate actively in the investigation until roughly half-way through the book, for reasons that I won’t reveal here; in fact, for the majority of the investigation he has to masquerade as Avery’s manservant, which is understandably somewhat inhibiting, although more for Avery than for Blake himself! There is also some historical information about poisonings in the afterword, given that it is the method of murder here, which I don’t think is revealing too much about the story, and mention is also made of Thomas Wakley, founding editor of the Lancet, and he is also one of the book’s characters. Week after week, in the pages of the Lancet, still one of the world’s most respected medical journals, Wakley exposed evidence of food swindling: legislation didn’t arrive until 1860. So as said, not a top-flight story, but easy if slow reading, and for me, at least, the historical accuracy makes the story all the more enjoyable.

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