Fergus O’Reilly dies early on in this engrossing, very British mystery, but the chef’s outsized personality and reputation cut a wide swath through the entire book.
“A Bitter Feast” is Deborah Crombie’s 18th novel about the married Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. This time around, their invitation to what is supposed to be a weekend respite in the historic Cotswolds region ends up being anything but relaxing.
Kincaid, James and their children are the guests of colleague Melody Talbot at her family’s estate, Beck House. The main event of the weekend is a charity luncheon featuring a meal by Viv Holland, a well-respected chef who has been working in London before returning to her native area.
The high-profile affair could help boost Holland’s stature in the foodie universe, but death quickly intervenes. O’Reilly and a local woman are found dead after a car crash that injures Kincaid, and the authorities soon figure out that not everything is as it seems.
The investigation quickly centers on learning more about O’Reilly and his past association with Holland. He was the quintessential temperamental chef, whose dark blond curls and deep dimples add to his reputation as the next Gordon Ramsay. But his involvement with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, plus his demeanor in the kitchen when the heat is on, undermined his trip to the top as well as his relationship with Holland.
“He was mercurial, prone to shouting at the staff over the least little detail,” Crombie writes, “while ignoring things that drove her bonkers, like the dirty vent hoods. But when he cooked, he was absolutely bloody brilliant.”
Inevitably, secrets surface about hidden connections and long-ago alliances among those who live in the small section of Gloucestershire, with Crombie taking full advantage of the staples of crime fiction — loud quarrels, illicit sex, blackmail, threats of violence and backstories that reveal people to be not exactly what they appear to be.
And the novel gives readers insight into the high-pressure world of restaurants
At times, the large cast of characters in “A Bitter Feast” — including police, children, even dogs — may become a little difficult to keep track of. But the mystery resolves itself in a satisfactory manner, and fans of Kincaid and James will appreciate how the family’s story moves ahead.
In all, Crombie weaves an intricate tale that readers will wonder about and savor — just as much as they would truly enjoy a legendary meal from O’Reilly’s kitchen. Far from being bitter, this feast goes down very well indeed.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.