The Butter Did It
by Phyllis Richman
Reviewed by Karen Grigsby Bates
Being an avid foodie and an avid mystery reader, I'm always cheered when I find writers who write about food lovingly and lavishly. Rex Stout did, of course, and Diane Mott Davidson continues to. And now Phyllis Richman, revered and feared food critic for the Washington Post, has joined the club with her first mystery, The Butter Did It. And of course its plot hinges on food. Lots of food.
Star chef Laurance Levain has dropped dead of a heart attack the evening before his prestigious restaurant was to take place in CityTastes, Washington DC's black-tie fundraiser that serves as a culinary Olympics. Most people, when they hear the news, simply assume that Levain, long possessed of a gusty appreciation of fine food and fine women, has died from an excess of either, and that his death is attributable to natural causes.
But his best friend and former lover, Chas Wheatley, can't let it go at that. The Washington Examiner's well-known restaurant critic, feared for her acid-etched reviews and her allergy to gustatory imperfections, decides to undertake an investigation of her own. (Maybe the fact that she's sleeping with the Examiner's star investigative reporter inspired her...) In the course of discovering whodunit, Richman treats us to a smorgasbord of characters: Chas' ex-husband, for whom she retains a warm friendship, her feisty musician daughter, Lily, D.C. Homicide detective Homer Jones and Chas' best friend, theater reviewer Sherele .
Richman lets us know pretty quickly that reviewing isn't all pate and profiteroles. Chas has to eat a lot of meals that are followed by a Maalox digestif in addition to the celestial ones. And the refrigerator, according to Sherele, could be relied on to contain plenty of her homework: "Vietnamese leftovers from a couple of days ago. A doggie bag from some steak house you went to last week. You've probably got more thousand year-old eggs than any Chinese restaurant in town, and you cured them yourself."
Along the way, Richman paints a deft picture of social Washington, a city that revolves, first and foremost, around the major industries, government and politics:"The movers and shakers of the Capital City have an unwritten curfew: On the stroke of 10 p.m....they get up to leave. They say it's because they must get up early, but at least for the politically inclined (which includes nearly everyone in Washington), it's really because they want to get home in time to watch the late news and Nightline. New Yorkers go to clubs until the wee hours; Washingtonians stay up late to see if they are mentioned in the news." (I've lived both places; she's right. Alas.)What do famous chefs really talk about when they hang out together? "The world outside assumes chefs constantly talk of food, of techniques, of ingredients. That's true only for the very young and naive. Seasoned chefs talk unceasingly of financial things--of profit, of price increases. Oh, they talk football, too, but even much of that discussion is about who bet how much in the pools and how many bucks the last winner got." Sacre bleu! and all this time I thought they were arguing over the best way to make a marchand du vin...
There are a few weak links. Chas, for instance, walks to keep her work-related avoirdupois in check, and to clear the mental cobwebs; it's a habit she learned from Laurence, in Paris, when they were both dewy-eyed novices. She walks in fair weather and foul, even in the middle of the night. Which, given Washington's homicide rate, is something sane women don't do--unless they're walking around in hot pants and charging by the hour. And sorry, but as notoriously gossipy as reporters are, someone would have scoped out Chas' stealth, two-year romance with Dave Zeeger. But these aren't major quibbles.
In general, this was a fun read, A number-one vacation material. But be forewarned: don't plop down on your beach blanket and assume you'll be able to read this with a bag of chips and a box of Ding Dongs. Richman writes so vividly and evocatively about food it's like reading the gustatory equivalent of pornography. You'll have to leave, hurriedly, to find something great to eat before you explode. Wouldn't hurt to pack the Zagat's.
Karen Grigsby Bates, co-author of Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times (Doubleday), is a Los Angeles writer who is completing her first mystery, Plain Brown Wrapper.
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