Some reviews come with spoiler alerts, this one comes with a warning: reading M.J. Carter’s wonderful The Devil’s Feast will leave you both incredibly hungry and far too scared to eat. It may be the best diet book I have ever read.
The Devil’s Feast is the third outing for Victorian investigative duo Captain William Avery and his mentor/partner-in-crime James Blake but works perfectly as a stand-alone. In this iteration, set in a sharply-evoked London in 1842, the detectives are charged with uncovering the cause of a mysterious death at the capital’s newly established Reform Club. The backdrop to the story is a web of political intrigue which is echoed in the culinary rivalry centring on the Reform’s fabulous kitchens and their Head Chef, the flamboyant Alexis Soyer, a cooking genius described as “the Napoleon of food.”
Carter has clearly done meticulous research and her powers of description add wonderful layers of richness to the story. Recipes, including some very fantastical creations, are mouth-wateringly re-imagined. The kitchens themselves are presented as a wonderful clash between technological advancements, the magic that happens when great cooks meet great ingredients and the raw brutality of working in hot, pressured and dangerous conditions. The visceral depiction of Smithfield’s great meat market is nightmarish enough to make even the most committed carnivore queasy.
Great settings but it is the characters who are the icing on this particular cake. The pairing of Avery and Blake draws on an established tradition but works because neither has the complete ascendant on the other and both have a life beyond their investigating bond. There are some comedic moments to be had from Blake’s character and the situation he is placed in and Carter handles them with a nicely light touch. All the characters are well drawn but Carter herself has said that Soyer is a gift to a writer and he really is. She has described him in interviews as part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver (surely a Dr Frankenstein creation if ever there was one) and one of the earliest celebrity chefs. Although food history is a bit of a passion of mine, I confess I did not know him beyond his name – I feel I may have been introduced to a new obsession! Soyer’s life clearly gave Carter interesting facts to work with and she has spun those into a complex character full of vanities, genius and wild ambitions who engenders loyalty and hatred in equal measure.
The subject matter, kitchen wars, feels very modern; the novel itself feels Dickensian, a great achievement. Plots involving poison; a cast of characters who bring their own personalities but also highlight the barriers between social groups; an interesting twist which allows the reader to be pulled out of the rarefied grandeur and snobbery of a gentleman’s club and into the realities of the grinding poverty and fear of disgrace colouring much of Victorian life. The Devil’s Feast is one of those novels you’ll open and then not be able to put down – I thoroughly recommend it. Just be really careful who makes you that cup of tea to go with it.
The Devil’s Feast is out on 27th October 2016.
Catherine Hokin is a Glasgow-based author with a degree in History from Manchester University. Her debut novel, Blood and Roses, was published in 2016. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history and popular culture.