Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Book Review, Blog Tour & Guest Post: THE DEVIL'S FEAST BY MJ CARTER (Historical Murder Mystery)



Published by Fig Tree
27 October 2016

London, 1842. There has been a mysterious and horrible death at the Reform, London’s newest and grandest gentleman’s club. A death the club is desperate to hush up.

Captain William Avery is persuaded to investigate, and soon discovers a web of rivalries and hatreds, both personal and political, simmering behind the club’s handsome fa├žade – and in particular concerning its resident genius, Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’, a chef whose culinary brilliance is matched only by his talent for self-publicity.

But Avery is distracted. Where is his mentor and partner-in-crime Jeremiah Blake? And what if this first death was only a dress rehearsal for something far more sinister?

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Devil's Feast by MJ Carter.

The Devil's Feast is the third book in the series featuring the 'inquiry agents' of Blake & Avery set in Victorian London.

The story starts as Avery visits Blake in the notorious debtors prison, Marshalsea, where Blake is being held for a debt owed to a very wealthy and influential man. But, as we discover later, Blake is far too clever to be held there for long.

And Avery certainly needs his friends assistance later when, after dining at the Reform political club a member is suddenly taken ill then dies a horrible death and is suspected of being poisoned: the club decide to appoint Avery to discover the perpetrator of this terrible crime. But he needs to be discreet as London society must not know of this incident due to a banquet being held very soon for the prince of Egypt, which will be 'the pinnacle of the club's existence so far'.

The finger of suspicion inevitably points to the kitchen staff, where the flamboyant, grandiose and vain Alexis Soyer 'the Napoleon of Food' is head chef, the most famous chef in England at the time. What a wonderful and crazy character he was, he comes alive on the pages, wearing his lavender-coloured suits and hat.

But when questioning the staff Blake and Avery discover lies, jealousies, rivalries and resentment.......it was like hell's kitchen!

I believe the characters make this such an interesting and enjoyable read, from the two main protagonists to the lowly kitchen maids, they all contribute to the plot. This is a very clever mystery, rich in detail, especially the descriptions of the sumptuous meals being prepared and served. Made me feel hungry!

MJ Carter has written this fascinating piece about poisons especially for my blog.

The golden age of poison

I’m addicted to the 1840s, the first decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. It’s pretty much my favourite historical decade and it’s where I set my historical thrillers. I know most people don’t have a favourite historical decade, but then I am a historian by trade and obsessive inclination. And the 1840s were the beginning of the ‘golden age’, if you will, of poisoning trials. Even the Victorians themselves agreed. Over the 1840s there were 98 poisoning trials in Britain, almost all of them domestic crimes. How could I not write about poison?

The number of trials involving poison wasn’t the only unusual aspect. The fact was, many of the defendants were women, and most of them were poor. In 1843 two notorious female serial poisoners were executed. Elizabeth Eccles killed five of her children and a stepson—though she was suspected of having poisoned at least five other earlier children. Sarah Dazeley poisoned her first and second husbands and son.

The trials became notorious because they were seized on by the new mass-market weekly press (like the News of the World which started in 1842), which gleefully reported a series of thrillingly horrible cases in which defendants had remorselessly knocked off spouses, parents, children, siblings, lodgers and lovers. Readers lapped it up.

The reasons for this sudden surge in poison trials were several. Of course people had been poisoning each other and getting away with it for centuries. But in the previous decades arsenic and strychnine had become cheap and easily accessible because they were used to kill vermin and bugs. Both weren’t hard to disguise in strong-tasting food and drink, though they were both really terrible ways to die. Times were hard, the decade was known as ‘the hungry forties’, poison was a weapon of the poor and powerless and money or lack of it seemed often to be the motive. Parents did away with inconveniently hungry children, spouses murdered each other, and maybe most significantly, family members used it to collect on a marvellous new invention, life insurance, which at the time one could take out on another family member without them knowing.

But the real zinger that made the 1840s different was that poisoners could now be found out. Chemists had come up with tests that were sensitive and reliable enough to detect the presence of poison in human remains. The first of these was British chemist Edward Marsh’s test for arsenic, devised in 1836. It was used successfully in a famous French murder trial in 1840—followed obsessively in the press—to prove that a widow, Marie Lafarge, had done away with her husband. It was soon being used in other trials. Tests for other poisons followed, but it took a while for would-be poisoners to realise that they weren’t going to get away with it so easily.

So, as I say, I felt I had to write about poison in my new thriller, The Devil’s Feast. However, I’ve added a few twists and turns to make it all a little more complicated and unexpected.

Be sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour for more interviews and guest posts.

My thanks to Sara D'Arcy at Penguin Random House UK for inviting me to be a part of the blog tour.

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