The Devil’s Feast | M.J. Carter | 2016, Pb 2017 | Fig Tree | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1842 and London has a new and very grand gentleman’s club – The Reform Club on Pall Mall. Established to provide a home from home for Radicals and Whigs, in direct opposition to the neighbouring Tory Carlton Club, the Reform Club has become famous, rightly so, for its food, all created under the loving eye of London’s first celebrity chef, Monsieur Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’.
Captain William Avery has left his wife and newborn son at home in Devon while he rushes to London to seek out the whereabouts of his good friend and investigative partner Jeremiah Blake, who appears to have vanished in thin air. Avery is pleased to be distracted from the anxiety of worry by an invitation from another friend to dine at the Reform Club as a guest of M. Soyer and, despite Avery’s devout Toryism, this is not an invitation to decline. All goes well – the dinner is superb, M. Soyer is a charming host – until one of the guests leaves the table never to return. He is poisoned! The Club is about to host a high profile and important diplomatic dinner, with none other than Lord Palmerston and the Prince of Egypt in attendance and peace in the Middle East as their goal. The significance of the poisoning cannot be underestimated, and not just for the reputation of the Club and Soyer. Even worse, was this a practice run? The Club’s Board immediately implores Avery to investigate the murder. If only Blake were around to lend a hand.
The Devil’s Feast is the third novel in M.J. Carter’s excellent Victorian mystery series to feature Avery and Blake and I was delighted to return to their company. I’m a big fan of historical murder mysteries and this series has become a firm favourite of mine – for the brilliant characters of Avery and Blake but also for the novels’ evocative and atmospheric historical setting. Each of these novels stands alone very well although, as usual, there are benefits to be had by reading them in order. While the first novel The Strangler Vine captured perfectly the exotic appeal and danger of India, the second novel, The Printer’s Coffin (originally The Infidel Stain), placed us in the workhouses, pubs and prisons of 1840s’ London, with all of the injustice and sadness that this entailed. This powerful sense of Victorian hypocrisy and cruelty continues, I’m pleased to say, in The Devil’s Feast.
The Radicals in the Reform Club might debate change but it’s people like Soyer who actually try to bring it about – offering the chance of employment to London’s poorest, organising soup kitchens in London’s most deprived areas. The club is concerned to facilitate this diplomatic dinner but their eyes have shifted from the causes closer at hand. M.J. Carter doesn’t labour the point, she’s far too gifted a novelist for that, but she makes the reader care about what is going on outside the walls of the Club every bit as much as inside it. Our time in the novel is spent divided between upstairs in the dining rooms and downstairs in the kitchens and the most fascinating characters are arguably to be found below.
There are some wonderful characters in The Devil’s Feast and chief among them is the extraordinary Alexis Soyer, a true historical figure who changed so many things about the ways in which kitchens worked and were run. His life was full of adventure, some of which you couldn’t make up, and M.J. Carter brings him to life.
The relationship between Avery and Blake is always enjoyable and it is again here. Blake in particular is a scene stealer and here there’s something of Sherlock Holmes about him in lots of different ways. Avery is once more our narrator and for much of the time he has a struggle on his hands to work out exactly what is going on.
While I found the actual mystery in The Devil’s Feast to be less involving than those in the previous novels, this didn’t affect my enjoyment. I love how M.J. Carter writes and how she immerses me in the historical setting, both in time and place. The people are so well drawn and many of them evoke lost worlds that continue to fascinate – Victorian politics and injustice, Radicalism, fashionable cuisine and inventions, service and poverty, prison and punishment. This is a series that rewards the reader in abundance.
A review: The Printer’s Coffin (published in Hb as The Infidel Stain)
Guest post: Who were the Infidels?