Thursday, August 31, 2006

Death du Jour

I knew there was a reason why I wanted to blog the books I read. This book is the reason.

Death du Jour is the second book in Lou Jane Temple's Spice Box series (the first is named, oddly enough, The Spice Box). When I saw this second one, I remembered the first one positively, but with reservations. Since I couldn't remember what the reservations were, I decided to read this one.

The link between the two books is the spice box--a box of unspecified antiquity, built to hold spices, now furnished with recipes in many languages. In the first book it comes into the possession of a servant girl in 19th century New York. In Death du Jour, the possessor is Fanny, a cook in revolutionary France. In Fanny's case, though, the spice box contains spices as well as recipes--and something far more desirable and dangerous.

Good things: Intriguing premise--a spice box is a fun focal point from which to trace culinary developments, and the occasional murder, across centuries. Exciting story--Fanny is caught in a twisted plot of allies and family, murderers, thieves, and revolutionaries, and struggles to distinguish friends from foes--or lovers. Strong and attractive historical flavor--the setting of Paris after the fall of the Bastille is intense and dangerous in its own right, and the details of life among the citizens and particularly those who are involved in professional cooking are rich and believable.

Bad thing: The characters don't work for me. Fanny is a prime example of one of my most unfavorite characters in murder mysteries: the one who, seeing a dangerous situation, stupidly jumps in the middle of it for no good reason other than to advance the plot. Head chef Henri is flip-flopped without adequate foreshadowing, as is maman Martine. Fournier is a mere bodice-ripper cover illustration.

Another bad thing: Anything to do with physical intimacy. The story points out that servants can be fired for extramarital sex, yet 18-year-old Fanny has few qualms about sleeping with her boyfriend on a routine basis. Far too 21st-century for me. And the relationship between Fournier and Fanny is a joke. Sounds like lust to me, but elements of modesty and sentimentality keep creeping in, which is jarring and unbelievable. Whatever. It would have been smarter to stay away from this sort of thing, which is what I prefer anyway, I say as I climb back on my soapbox labeled "Close the bedroom door!"

So, note to self: Next time a Spice Box mystery comes out, don't waste your time. There are plenty of better books out there to read.


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