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French Fried by Nancy Fairbanks
Review by Ernest Lilley
Berkley Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0425213080
Date: 05 December, 2006 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Publisher's Page / Show Official Info /

Carolyn Blue is an empty nester who now writes for a local newspaper about food, which gives her an excuse to frequent the sort of restaurants that her husband Jason, a head in the clouds chemistry professor with a passion for counting pennies, wouldn't dare enter. So when Jason takes her to Lyon, France to present a paper, she's delighted to come along. Lyon is renowned as a culinary crossroad and Carolyn is determined to make the most of it...even if someone is trying to kill one or both of them.

It starts with poisoned pate waiting for the couple in their hotel room, which should have been a sure fire recipe for murder, since Carolyn adores pate, but instead a colleague of Jason's succumbs to temptation while waiting for them to show up. The author switches point of view between the narrator, Carolyn, Jason, the killer, whom we're clued in at the start is a member of the chemistry department that is hosting the conference, and who has an axe to grind with Jason, but wouldn't mind if she got Carolyn instead, taking from Jason the woman he loves. Evidentially the killer's been there, done that, and wants to spread the joy around.

Actually, the killer misses repeatedly, though Jason has a hard time believing Carolyn, or the helpful police inspector, that a plot to kill one or both of them is afoot. That's not surprising, as he's been painted to be pretty much as dense as an overcooked steak, especially when it comes to understanding the emotions of others. He's so thick in fact, that it's a wonder he doesn't lose Carolyn on general principles. She's right about everything, which could get annoying, except that he ignores her most of the time, including the designs his busty Latino graduate student has on him. But no, figuring out the motives of others isn't his strong suit. Counting pennies is his real passion in life.

So Carolyn travels around first Lyon, then Avignon, where the conference will actually be held, with the women and wives of the department staff. All of which are more than willing to encourage her sightseeing, shopping and salon the tune of enough money for Jason to consider killing her himself. Fortunately for the clueless professor, he won't see the bills till they get home, if they live that long. Meanwhile, the clumsy killer keeps striking, usually at Carolyn, but never quite manages to come up with quite the right formula for murder. But the killer is driven by a passion for revenge, and won't give up until one of the couple is dead if its the last thing they do.

I like armchair travel, food, and the occasional murder quite well, but Nancy Fairbanks didn't get the ingredients to meld together nearly as well as I'd like. The Blues (Jason and Carolyn) are gratingly mismatched, which worries us when you consider that her own chemistry professor husband surely served as his model, and the French police would be justified in feeling insulted at being portrayed as nearly as dense as Jason. The inspector we meet in Lyon is engaging enough, and if Carolyn had been able to develop a working relationship with him, the story would have moved along better, but instead he's left wandering around in circles while Lyon burns. Riots have come to town, so perhaps that's the reason Carolyn has to solve the crimes herself, but she brings a spectacular lack of sleuthing skills to the job, with the killer's identity ultimately handed her on a platter. So to speak. Moreover, as a certified foodie, I have a bit of trouble believing that the main character's charm is sufficient for her to charm the recipes included in samples of her "column" at the end of each chapter out of their chefs.

Well, I liked the supporting characters pretty well, including the two dogs that run with this pack, and if you're looking for touristy details of quaint French cities, French Fried certainly doesn't lack for quantity, though for haute cuisine level details, you'd be much better off with Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis by Cara Black. The bottom line is that while this story was fair enough as comfort food, I'd hoped that the declasse descriptor undershot the quality of the story. In the end, it wound up matching it.

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