So, whoever recently recommended this mystery to me, good call! I really liked it and will be going on with the second book shortly.
This is a cozy mystery, but not remotely a “cutesy.” It’s a mystery that involves a woman whose job has nothing to do with murder investigations, who nevertheless gets mixed up in a murder investigation. This is Tannie Maria, a woman from the Klein Karoo region of South Africa, who writes a recipe-and-advice column for a local newspaper. Not only are her recipes given at the end of the book, but also she falls in love with the detective in charge of the investigation. So you can see, it has every one of the typical hallmarks of a cozy mystery.
But there are no puns, food related or otherwise; the only comedy arises from the naturally crazy moments life provides; and the story deals seriously with serious topics. Recipes for Love and Murder is also longer and slower-paced than I would expect from the fluffier cutesy mysteries.
Here is the first page:
Isn’t life funny? You know, how one thing leads to another in a way you just don’t expect.
That Sunday morning, I was in my kitchen stirring my apricot jam in the cast-iron pot. It was another dry summer’s day in the Klein Karoo, and I was glad for the breeze coming in the window.
“You smell lovely,” I told the appelkooskonfyt.
When I call it “jam” it sounds like something in a jar from the Spar supermarket, but when it’s konfyt, you know it’s made in a kitchen. My mother was Afrikaans and my father was English and the two languages are mixed up inside me. I taste in Afrikaans and argue in English, but if I swear I go back to Afrikaans again.
The appelkooskonfyt was just coming right, getting thick and clear, when I heard the car. I added some apricot kernels and a stick of cinnamon to the jam; I did not know that the car was bringing the first ingredient in a recipe for love and murder.
But maybe life is like a river that can’t be stopped, always winding toward or away from death and love. Back and forth. Still, even though life moves like that river, lots of people go their whole lives without swimming. I thought I was one of those people.
Nice, eh? I knew this was a good purchase when I read this page. I guess I like dabs of philosophy in my murder mysteries, just as I like smooth metaphors and recipes. This novel delivers all of that. As a mystery . . . actually it was pretty good there as well. The author successfully hinted me off on a red herring, so I was quite surprised to find out who was actually killing people. She did provide a few clues that pointed in the right direction, but I missed them. So, yes, pretty good mystery – though I would have liked it anyway for the characters and setting.
Tannie (Auntie) Maria is an appealing protagonist. She’s middle aged – that makes a nice chance from all the twenty-something protagonists in cozies (and fiction in general). She was in a bad marriage for quite some time and is now a widow. When she writes her column, it’s plain that she feels good food solves most problems and advances most romances. She’s right, too.
She is not unbelievably competent. In fact, she is one of the more “real” protagonists I’ve met lately. She has a normal body, she wears normal clothes, she likes normal things, and she’s afraid of and worried about things like a normal person. She goes inarticulate when she’s scared or excited, which is quite endearing (I am pretty sure Detective Kannemeyer thinks so too). She also loves good food. I definitely appreciate Tannie Maria. I would love to live next door to her, seriously.
Also, her recipes look genuinely delicious. Here’s the first one given in the book:
* * *
1 T turmeric
½ T paprika
2 T coriander
1 T black pepper
1 tsp salt
4 T minced garlic
3 T minced fresh ginger
2-4 chilies, minced
2 lbs mutton or lamb shank meat, cubed
2 medium eggplants, cubed
5 T vegetable oil
1 ½ T cumin seeds
2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 T mustard seeds
6 cardamom pods, cracked
½ stick cinnamon
2 onions, peeled and sliced
8 tomatoes, peeled and chopped. You may know already this, but in case you don’t: you can peel tomatoes by cutting an x on the bottom and adding to boiling water for a minute or two, than dumping them into cold water. The skins should come right off. Or cans of whole peeled tomatoes would be fine, I’m sure.
4 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 T garam masala
1 C fresh cilantro, minced
Combine all the ground spices and the salt with the garlic, ginger, and chilies. Toss with the meat.
Salt the eggplant and set aside.
Heat the oil in a big ovenproof pot until very hot. Add the seeds and whole spices and stir until their smell fills the kitchen and the mustard seeds begin to pop. Add the onions and turn the heat down to med-high.
When the onions are soft, rinse the eggplant and add to the pot. Cook until they have a little color.
Add the lamb with all its spices and stir to keep the spices from sticking to the bottom of the pot. When the lamb is just brown, add 1 C water and cover the meat with the tomatoes. Simmer 15 minutes. Cook, covered, in the oven at 300 degrees for 2 hours. Leave to cool in the over. Then chill overnight.
The next day, about an hour before you want to eat, boil the potatoes in very salty water for 15-20 minutes, until they’re tender. Drain and add to the curry. Add the garam masala. Cook in the oven, uncovered, at 375 degrees, for 50 minutes or until the liquid has thickened. Serve with basmati rice and whatever condiments appeal to you (the book suggests cucumber and tomato sambals).
* * *
There, doesn’t that sound excellent? Plus I have everything necessary except the lamb, including the fenugreek seed, though I will need more of that soon.
Update: the supermarket didn’t have lamb, so I’m going to make this with beef. I’m sure it will be great.
I can tell you, I’m going to cook my way through lots of the recipes in this book (there are 16 recipes total).
So, Tannie Maria is a good protagonist, and she is surrounded by good supporting characters. Anna and Dirk are a little over the top as the bereaved significant others of the murder victim. They are lunatics, to put it plainly. But they’re fun. Jessie, the young sidekick type of secondary character, is perhaps a bit clichéd. Hattie, the owner of the newspaper, much less so. Detective Kannemeyer is a good male lead, but his role is actually rather small. The romance is important, but not really central to the story – which I often like.
The letters of people writing to Tannie Maria were wonderful; I would have been happy to see a few more. Maria’s answers were also wonderful. Every reader is certain to be charmed by the progression of the mechanic’s letters and the progression of his relationship with his girlfriend. Putting the mechanic’s wedding at the end of the novel – this is a really minor spoiler, so I hope you don’t mind – is a wonderful way to tie off the entire story.
I also want to emphasize that the setting is just wonderful. This is the Klein Karoo of South Africa in the year of Mandela’s death, and the author does a fabulous job evoking an arid landscape that is actually filled with life. She made me want to visit, or maybe live there. The novel is chock-full of Afrikaans words and phrases, which deepens the setting wonderfully. These are usually clear from context, and if the reader gets puzzled (every now and then, I did get puzzled), there’s a glossary in the back.
I liked the overall balance of mystery/romance/cooking/setting details pretty well, but I will say, I’m looking forward to seeing the relationship between Tannie Maria and Detective Kannemeyer develop further in the second book. This has basically been the year of the murder mystery for me so far, and I think I won’t fight that, so I will go on with this series very soon.