Monday, October 14, 2019

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie: Reading Room Review

There’s a question that surfaces every so often for readers. What books would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island. As with most questions concerning favorite books, I fudge a little and give myself some license to expand the question. So, I choose the entire Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid mystery/crime series by author Deborah Crombie. Granted, there are a few other series that would be sitting with my supply of coconuts, but Gemma and Duncan will always be there. Every book in this series has been an immersive experience in exceptional characters, old and new, engrossing setting, and gripping story. Under the direction of Deborah Crombie’s masterful pen, the words flow into phrases, the phrases into sentences, and the sentences into pages of unforgettable journey with two of the best characters in crime fiction. There is life in these stories that sweeps the reader into complete engagement. And, the latest entry in this series, A Bitter Feast (#18), is one of the best books of one of the best series. Yet, having said that last statement, if I were to go back and read an earlier installment in the series, it’s probable that I would also deem it one of the best. How great is that? Always knowing that you will love a book and it will be a best read.

Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James and their three children have been invited to the Cotswold estate of Melody Talbot’s parents. Melody is Gemma’s proved detective sergeant and has always been rather reticent to discuss her wealthy background, Melody’s father being the publisher of a major London newspaper, and her mother being the money behind the paper. So, the invitation to spend a weekend at Beck House in one of England’s most beautiful locations, the Costwolds, is a lovely getaway for Duncan and Gemma, and it’s a step forward for Melody in dealing with blending her two lives. Doug Cullen, Duncan’s right hand man, is also in the guest party. They all arrive in different ways and at different times, and Duncan’s arrival turns out to be quite the perilous one that leads to a busman’s holiday for Duncan and Gemma. 

Melody’s mother, Lady Adelaide, is hosting a charity luncheon for the community, catered by the local chef, Viv Holland, who is also the proprietor of the Lamb Pub. Chef Viv has gained a loyal local following after returning from some years in London to her home area and making a concerted effort to use local produce and goods in her dishes. The luncheon could bring national attention to Viv’s culinary skills, something she finally feels ready for. Author Deborah Crombie has created some of the most memorable new characters, those outside of the constant family of characters, in the different books, keeping the series fresh while satisfying readers’ need for the familiar, too. Viv Holland is the latest in those memorable new characters, and A Bitter Feast is very much Viv’s story, as her life past and present connects directly to the plot’s unfolding and resolution. 

The problems, as must always arise, start with Duncan’s perilous journey to Beck House when he is involved in an auto crash with two fatalities, one of whom has a history with Chef Viv. Duncan is quite shaken in the crash, but he still gets involved in the investigation into it, as does Gemma. An investigation into the accident becomes necessary mostly due to the discovery that one of the two fatalities, from the same car, was dead before the accident occurred. That particular fatality has ties to Viv when she lived in London and involves information she would rather see stay in the past. But secrets from the past are a hard ghost to keep buried, and when the danger to others intensifies, Viv worries she hasn’t outrun her past. 

Told from multiple points of view, it is captivating to see how cleverly all the information comes together to answer all the questions and solve all the mysteries. As I noted earlier, this story belongs to Viv, and it is with Crombie’s smooth transitions readers will travel back with Viv to her London days and what brought her back to the village of Lower Slaughters in Gloucestershire. The inner workings of a high-end restaurant and the food descriptions in the book are fascinating. The artistry and passion of a chef’s work is evident, and the drive to achieve a Michelin star is an intense struggle. Insight into Gemma’s and Duncan’s and the police’s investigation, their process, of the crimes allows the reader to feel the suspense of getting closer to the killer. The staff of Viv’s pub and Viv’s daughter provide additional information that connects to those murdered and the murderer. 

Another multiplicity that the author deftly handles is that of a number of intriguing characters. Under Deborah Crombie’s direction, there is never any confusion nor difficulty in remembering the characters, as they are blended beautifully into the thrilling plot. We have Duncan and Gemma and their children—Kit, Toby, and Charlotte—and, readers will enjoy an expanded part for Kit in this story. The characters from Viv’s pub, which she co-owns with Bea Abbott, and Viv’s daughter all play important parts. Then there are Melody’s parents and Melody, their staff, and the village residents helping to move the plot forward, with Melody’s father making introductions between Duncan and the local police. It’s another first-rate cast that performs brilliantly. And, of course, nobody does setting any better than Deborah Crombie. Her books set in the different parts of London make the reader see, feel, and taste the place. She does no less for the Costwolds, bringing the beauty of this tranquil setting right into your heart. 

The many fans of this series will heartily attest to the pleasure of reading from book one to this book, #18, and getting to know Gemma and Duncan and the other familiar characters. But, here is the hidden gem to A Bitter Feast. It could be read as a stand-alone story. Again, there’s nothing quite like reading the development of characters from one book to the next, but a reader who hasn’t read the previous 17 novels could read this current book with immense satisfaction. However readers come to A Bitter Feast, long-time fans or new readers, the result is an outstanding read. For me, A Bitter Feast was a delectable feast indeed.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of A Bitter Feast from the author.

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