“It was a wristwatch. A pretty expensive one, too, by the looks of it. I reached down to take hold of the watch, but it was entangled in the mat of kelp. Pulling harder, I finally succeeded and the watch came free from the seaweed. And with it, the arm to which it was still attached.”
Gino’s dead! The body discovered by chef Sally Solari belongs to a well-known local fisherman, a regular at Solari’s, the restaurant run by Sally’s father. Gino had staggered out of Solari’s a few nights before, and that was the last time anyone saw him alive.
And so begins the new mystery by Leslie Karst, a vibrant woman with a gleam in her eye and a head full of murder suspects. Some of those suspects—a hard-drinking fisherman, a flirtatious journalist, and the owner of a popular seafood restaurant—find their way into her latest “cozy” mystery. Death al Fresco is the third in her series of Sally Solari mysteries—each one of which uses a sensory theme to flavor the plot. In this book, Sally and her best buddy (sometime boyfriend) Eric are determined to become 21st century Gauguins by enrolling in a plein air watercolor class. The protagonist, once again, is a chef and cycling fanatic, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Karst herself.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Karst explains: “Cozies are light mysteries that take place in a small town with an amateur sleuth, and which contain no on-the-page graphic violence or sex.” Karst says she didn’t actually choose the genre, but “as soon as I started writing the first book, Sally’s voice popped out of my head. And since it was a breezy, slightly sarcastic but fun-loving kind of voice, I knew right away that the book would make a perfect cozy mystery,” she says. Actually, Karst likes to call her books, “snarky cozies,” given Sally’s fondness for the odd swear word and sarcastic riposte.
Karst, a passionate home cook with an enviable arsenal of Italian recipes, admits to the resemblance with Sally. “I’m an ex-lawyer who’s obsessed with food,” she grins. “We’re both recreational cyclists and share the love of dogs, opera, the Giants, and single-barrel bourbons.” And while the author claims that her character “is far braver than I am—I’d never have the nerve to investigate an actual murder,” those who know her might disagree. “One of the best things about being a writer is that you can give your characters traits you don’t have but might wish you did.” Hence Sally’s tall stature, her ’57 T-Bird convertible, and Italian heritage.
The minute she arrived in Santa Cruz to attend UCSC, Karst fell under the spell of the “laid-back beach vibes,” the redwoods, and the Italian fishing community legacy. All of those elements—plus a few strands of newer, politically-correct “food activists”—powered her leap into mystery-writing as soon as she retired from Watsonville’s Grunsky Law Firm.
In this, her third mystery, Karst shows off a fluency with dialogue, well-placed red herrings, and mouth-watering food descriptions. The pages of Death al Fresco practically turn themselves once Sally starts to obsess about gathering clues and suspects into a satisfying solution, all the while juggling the non-stop action of a busy restaurant kitchen. Karst’s newest book is loaded with sights and atmosphere of her Santa Cruz home, and locals will have lots of fun spotting their dining landmarks, walking trails and beaches scattered through the pages. Since both Sally and her Italian father own seafood restaurants, the author includes a few of the mouth-watering recipes for dishes served in those restaurants. “I took a class as a culinary arts student at Cabrillo College called Menu Planning with Sue Slater, and I still go back to my notes from that class to make sure restaurant dishes I include in my books make sense from a food-costing perspective,” she says.
The recipe she provides for tagliarini pasta with brown butter, sage and porcini mushrooms is worth the price of the book all by itself.
Leslie Karst, her feisty attitude, and her latest Sally Solari culinary caper will be on hand at Bookshop Santa Cruz from 7-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28 to launch and sign copies of her new book, Death al Fresco. lesliekarstauthor.com.