“Something about Brian seemed off. I couldn’t tell precisely what—perhaps the angle of his lanky body as he hunched over the counter? Or maybe the erratic way he was chopping shallots for tonight’s bearnaise sauce, making a series of slow, methodical slices followed by a barrage of rapid-fire strokes.”
So begins Murder from Scratch, the fourth book in Santa Cruz author Leslie Karst’s mystery series featuring the escapades of restaurateur Sally Solari. Set in Santa Cruz and laced with piquant details of our local scene, from bike rides along the coast to shopping the downtown farmers’ market and pouring Venus gin, Karst’s latest caper offers enough local color to delight her fanbase.
In Murder from Scratch, we meet Solari’s young cousin Evelyn, whose mother has just died under mysterious (duh!) circumstances. Clues point to suicide, but Evelyn—whose sensory awareness is particularly acute due to her blindness—thinks otherwise. Using her heightened sense of touch, Evelyn quickly notices that items in her mother’s house have been moved and removed in ways that wouldn’t happen if her mom had taken her own life. Sally becomes suspicious enough to begin her own search for possible leads once she installs Evelyn in her guest room for a few weeks.
Karst wisely keeps her protagonist’s immediate surroundings front and center throughout the mystery series. We become reacquainted with Eric, Sally’s former boyfriend, who has now become a good buddy. Sally’s dad, who owns an Italian restaurant on the Santa Cruz wharf, returns, and is now speed dating a babe he’s met through an online service. Sally is still cooking the specials at Gauguin, her own restaurant, but has recently drawn up legal documents that will make her skilled sous chef Javier a full partner in the popular dinner house.
But the book is also populated with a few new cooks with trending pop-up eateries—cooks who were close to Evelyn’s mom—until they weren’t. Suspects who might have wanted Evelyn’s mom out of the way start popping up (sorry) everywhere. Occasionally I found myself wondering how a busy restaurant owner and cook like Solari always has time to investigate clues or take her cousin shopping. But hey, that’s why it’s called fiction, right?
Foodies will love the back-of-the-house kitchen details seasoning this mystery, as Karst adds the down and dirty realities of restaurant chauvinism to her growing list of suspect motives. As with past Sally Solari books, these pages are filled with tantalizing food details, terrific attention to aromas, textures and sophisticated ingredient combos. Reading the mouthwatering prep notes for Nonna Sophia’s Homemade Egg Pasta or Singapore Noodles with Roast Pork and Broccolini had me salivating for some of these seductive comfort foods. Karst knows her readers will all be doing the same, which is why she so graciously provides easy to follow, step-by-step recipes for these and a few other dishes at the back of her latest work of fiction.
Will Eric and Sally get back together romantically? Does Evelyn win Javier’s heart by teaching him the secret to tender pasta? Can Solari herself stay one step ahead of Detective Vargas? In Murder from Scratch, the menu of plot twists is good enough to eat.
Leslie Karst will read from and sign her new Sally Solari mystery ‘Murder from Scratch’ at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.