A year or two ago, when my husband had just finished reading the latest book that I had pressed on him with all earnest entreaty that he must read it at once, he gave me an odd look and asked “Did you know that whenever you tell me a book is really, really good, it has a lot of cooking in it?”.
Oh. Apparently, I had noticed nothing of the sort. I am an avid and eclectic reader – indeed, it’s possible that I spend more time reading than I do thinking and talking about food. Mostly I don’t assume that everyone needs to read the same books that I do, but there are some novels or biographies which I feel are objectively so good that I want everyone to read them. And as it turns out, these novels and biographies tend to be full of people cooking, eating, or thinking about really good food. So much for my powers of literary criticism…
Actually, there is an increasing trend towards people writing mystery novels, romances and even urban fantasy novels that are full of cooking (and sometimes even recipes). The quality varies, but – I can’t help myself – I devour them all. Well, perhaps not all. There are a few that I’ve given up on, and one which I threw against a wall, but generally speaking, descriptions of lavish meals or contented cookery will have me going back to these books whenever I feel tired or sad or in need of a pick-me-up.
Right now, I am very tired indeed. This weekend was, as you may have noticed, quite a busy one, and work is not precisely relaxing either. So instead of posting a recipe or a cookbook review today, I’m going to write about one of my favourite cosy mystery novels. It’s set in Melbourne, and every time I read it, it makes me want to start a bakery.
Kerry Greenwood is a Melbourne author, who has been writing all sorts of fiction for years. She is most well known for her Phryne Fisher novels, a series of detective stories set in 1920s Melbourne. Her novels are fun and not too demanding, her characters are enjoyable, and her plots are quite good – I don’t tend to guess her whodunnits in advance, possibly because I enjoy her settings so much I stop trying to analyse things.
Earthly Delights is the first in a series of stories set in current-day Melbourne. It’s probably my least favourite in the series, largely because she is still finding her feet and collecting her cast of characters, but it is still heaps of fun. Her viewpoint character, Corinna Chapman, is a baker who lives in an ancient Roman-style apartment building just off Flinders Lane in Melbourne. The building does not exist – I’ve looked for it, as has just about everyone else I know; we all want to live there, because it has a rooftop garden, an Impluvium full of fish, mosaics on every floor, and some excellent residents.
The life of a baker is not romanticised in this book. Indeed, the book begins with Corinna Chapman cursing 4am, the hour at which she has to get up in order to bake her bread for the day. My great-uncle Charlie was a baker, and I vividly remember him and his sons having to leave all family events by about 9 or 10pm in order to get to bed so that they would be able to get up early and make bread in the morning. It doesn’t matter. I still want to make bread. In between reviving collapsed junkies, taking on a former heroin addict as an apprentice, falling in love with the handsome heavy from the Soup Run, looking for a missing girl, a poison-pen, and several possible murderers, Corinna makes herb scrolls, sourdough rye, seven-seed bread, blueberry muffins, health loaf, pasta duoro, date and honey bread, and altogether more than enough food to make me hungry. And yes, there are recipes at the end of the book, though I haven’t actually tried them (I have some very good bread books, which usually get an excellent workout after reading a Corinna Chapman story).
Also, whenever I get to the end of a Corinna Chapman book I have to talk myself out of making a sourdough starter. I know perfectly well that we just don’t eat enough bread, and that sourdough is like a pet, needing constant care and feeding, but somehow it always feels irresistible. Even 4am starts seem like an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of making something as magical as bread and then getting to feed people with it!
Oh, you wanted to know about the book? Well, it is the sort of mystery novel I’d class as a cozy – but having said that, it’s not absolutely G-rated, either. I’d say that if the lurid red cover and the first ten pages don’t shock you, you shouldn’t have too many issues with the rest of the book. Greenwood’s books are very low on violence, despite having murder as a theme, but they do contain what the television guide would probably refer to as ‘sexual themes’ and ‘language’.
One gorgeous thing about Earthly Delights is its strong sense of place. There aren’t too many books around that are set in Melbourne, and this isn’t just Melbourne, it’s the Melbourne I know – the inner-city, eccentric, occasionally seedy, somewhat goth Melbourne. It feels vividly real to me, and the characters are the sort of people I feel I might know. (Actually, they could well be people I know, as my social set intersected with that of Kerry Greenwood a number of years back) The book is peppered with references to Australian culture and politics, which are probably more amusing if one has lived in Australia in the last decade, though this hasn’t stopped my European and American friends from enjoying the books.
While Corinna is the central character of all the novels, the cast is something of an ensemble, comprising Corinna’s inner circle and the people who live in Insula, the aforementioned Roman apartment building. We get to know Meroe, the witch who runs The Sybil’s Cave magic shop; Jason, the recovering addict with a gift for muffins; Kylie and Gossamer, the perpetually-dieting teenagers who help out in the shop while waiting for that magical audition; Professor Monk, the retired classicist who has furnished his apartment with reproduction Roman furniture, including possibly the world’s only Roman TV cabinet; Mistress Dread, who runs a leather wear shop and dungeon; Daniel, the mysterious stranger from the Soup Run; and Constable L. White, dry, sensible, and honest. And then there are the Pemberthys, Trudi, Jon, the geeks, the Pandamus family, and the assorted and ever-growing number of pets that attach themselves to various characters. There are a lot of people to get to know in this book.
The book has a number of concurrent plots. Who is killing the junkies? What has happened to the missing daughter? Who is writing misogynist and anti-witch slogans on the walls? Is there a murderer in the building, or is it a scare campaign? Who is Daniel, and why are the police so suspicious of him? Is Jason going to stay around, or is he going to run away, or get murdered? What will Corinna bake next? (OK, that’s not actually a mystery, but it is something I care about) Kerry Greenwood does a good job of tying these things in together into a story, without overstretching coincidence too much. The advantage of setting her story in the very middle of the city is that it *is* a place where most people go to eventually – runaway children, the people who look for them, or look after them, or prey on them, people looking for work or to recreate themselves, everyone. So it isn’t too surprising when they cross paths, and the resolution is satisfying and manages to avoid excessive sweetness.
And there is the bread. Did I mention the bread? And the baking, and the eating of bread-with-things and things-with-bread, and the occasional feast from the Pandamus restaurant. Oh, and speaking with restaurants, Kerry Greenwood has the absolute kiss of death for Melbourne cafés – every single café or pub she has mentioned in a Corinna Chapman book has closed down within a year. I know this, because she describes them and I think, ooh, yummy, I think I’ll go there, and I do, and it’s gone.
I don’t feel as though I’ve done Earthly Delights justice. Basically, it’s a really fun book, with plenty of humour, good characterization, entertaining plotting, and a lot of delicious bread. It is not high literature, but it is eminently readable, and indeed, I probably reread all the books in this series once a year or so. There is absolutely nothing better to read when you are at home and sick with a foggy brain – this book will entertain you and amuse you without making you work too hard. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.
You can buy this book from The Book Depository or from Amazon. The Book Depository still has that discount until June 5, so type MAY11 into the box at the checkout to get 10% off. Sadly, the lurid red cover appears to be out of print for the time being, and you’ll have to make do with an annoyingly generic cover with architecture and stone that looks completely un-Melbournian. On the other hand, it’s probably less embarrassing to read on the tram.