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by Leslie Karst
Severn House, August 2022
224 pages
ISBN: 1448309034

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sally Solari is a chef, so when she loses her senses of smell and taste, she is at a distinct (pun intended) disadvantage in a local cooking contest; this disadvantage does not stop her from tracking down the killer of another contestant.

It's the morning of the annual Artichoke Cook-Off on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Chef Sally Solari wakes up with no sense of smell or taste, following a very nasty sinus infection. How is she supposed to know if what she is serving is any good? She does have help for the contest, which is good for today. After doing some research, Sally discovers that there are no guarantees that those senses will ever return to her, and thus no time-line for how long she has to rely on others for help at her job. Not a good way to start any day, that's for sure.

The contest goes well, mostly. Her booth took third place in the People's Choice Awards, a coup for her, especially given that it was her first time trying. Her dad, Mario Solari, won first place in the Judge's Award, a real feather in his cap for which he had been trying for three years. The down side is that Neil Lerici, a previous winner of the People's Choice Award and this year's winner as well, fails to show up, so the prize goes to another winner. The reason that Neil didn't show up is that Neil has been killed by a blow to the head and had a baby artichoke stuffed into his mouth. His booth was right next to Sally's; she feels that she should have noticed something, been able to do something no matter that she was working her tail off and too busy to notice much of anything. Sally is a little taken aback when Martin Vargas, the detective on the case, asks her for some unorthodox help on the case. She does know the family, which is what prompts the favor request. Sally agrees to help him, partly because it suits her to poke around and partly because her relationship with Vargas is moving, albeit slowly, from friendship to perhaps something more.

This is the fifth Sally Solari mystery. Since it is about a chef, Karst would be a fool not to include recipes. She is not a fool. The slate of recipes at the end of the book is sufficient to make an entire meal: soup to dessert, with a cocktail. Go for it! Quite a bit of the book is set inside, although the California scenery gets the due it deserves. The characters are human, with all that being human implies. Sally is very frustrated (one can only imagine unless one has been there) with her lack of what she considers two of the most important senses she has and still she learns how to work around that lack. The transition from old BFF then boyfriend Eric to ex-boyfriend Eric is made smoother by her shifting relationship with Martin. Sally exploits her old friendship with Neil's sister to do some fairly subtle sleuthing within the circle of the Lerici family; this turns up some disconcerting information about Sally's father and Neil's mother, and Sally has to reconsider some family history. This fifth novel stands well all by itself (a tribute to Karst's writing skill) and reading the other four in the series will demonstrate her growth as a writer as well as giving the reader a bit more back-story to enjoy.

P.J Coldren: I have been reading and reviewing mystery fiction for over a quarter of a century and read broadly within just about all genres and sub-genres. I live in Northern lower Michigan with my spousal unit, one large cat, and two fairly small dogs.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, June 2022

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