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Mysteries & Adventures

Whodunit Writers Cook Up A Fresh Batch of Tasty Puzzles

By Phyllis Hanes. Phyllis Hanes writes about food for the Monitor. / March 5, 1993



RECIPE FOR DEATH By Janet Laurence, Doubleday, 239 pp., $17.

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AGATHA RAISIN AND THE QUICHE OF DEATH By M. C. Beaton, St. Martin's Press, 201 pp., $17.95.

THE MYSTERY ROAST By Peter Gadol, Crown, 306 pp., $20.

THE 27-INGREDIENT CHILI CON CARNE MURDERS By Nancy Picard, Delacorte, 296 pp., $18.

`COZIES" is a word applied to a group of mysteries that often involve food and cooking. More specifically, a "cozy" is a comfortable whodunit easily read with a cup of tea. It's usually a nice little puzzle with a surprise ending.

Many of these delightful mysteries include workable recipes, while others include only descriptions of serious cooking.

These books are also called "domestics," and writers as well as readers of them belong to an organization called "Malice Domestic," says author Katherine Hall Page, who writes a series about sometime sleuth, minister's wife, and caterer Faith Sibley Fairchild.

Among the new crop of "cozies" is Janet Laurence's "Recipe for Death," the fourth in her professional caterer-turned-detective culinary mystery series. The British author has also published two small books on French and Scandinavian cooking, writes a cooking column, and has been a cooking teacher.

The book's setting is a cooking competition at London's Savoy Hotel, one Laurence knows well. Darina Lisle, judging the contest, watches as each contestant cooks a three-course menu using not fewer than four different single-variety oils. The cooks are inventive and professional, using olive oil in a mousseline of fish with pistachio, for example, or including walnut or hazelnut oils in dressings.

But the "recipe for death" is not in the contest. Darina visits the winner, Verity Frye, and her mother at the organic farm they run. The mystery begins later - from a poisoned pate.

Using food as the vehicle for the poison may be a cliche found in too many mystery stories, but Laurence offers more than a glimpse into the culinary conversations, recipes, and details at the organic farm. This is a lively story, and the plot is well-organized.

A different kind of cooking contest will intrigue readers of "Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death" by M.C. Beaton. Set in a picturesque Cotswold village in England, the book introduces the irascible Mrs. Raisin, who has recently retired from her high-powered public relations firm and eager to enjoy country life.

Determined to make an impression in the village, Agatha buys a quiche at a posh bakery to enter as her own in the local cooking contest and finds herself a murder suspect when the judge keels over.

Whimsical and gently comical, the mystery begins as the cranky yet appealing Agatha confesses that she didn't make the quiche and then turns investigative to find out who put the poison into the pie.

"The Mystery Roast," by Peter Gadol, is a positive and inviting portrayal of New York City. There is a fine mix of urban humor, sharp wit, and entertaining stories centered around activity at The Mystery Roast Cafe, so named because of an unknown blend of coffee beans caused by accidental mixing.

Eric Auden, a proper young New Yorker, lives in a loft apartment above the pleasant cafe. Recently divorced and slightly lost, Auden wanders aimlessly through New York's grandest museum and, mesmerized by an ancient statue, gives in to the desire to steal it. Once in possession of the statue, his life turns around.

In the cafe, Eric meets and falls in love with Inca, a woman who designs useless gadgets. They create a scheme to replicate the goddess, but things get complicated when Eric's mother Lydia begins to date a museum official investigating the theft.

"The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders" by Nancy Pickard is based on characters and notes left behind by the late mystery writer Virginia Rich. The amateur detecting as well as the cooking of Eugenia Potter continue much as they did in Rich's popular "Baked Bean Supper Murders," "Cooking School Murders," and others. Pickard, twice nominated for mystery writing's Edgar Award, continues the series.

Mrs. Potter, a wise, warm woman in her 60s, answers an urgent phone call while sauteing meatballs in her cozy cottage in Maine. She then decides to make a quick trip to her ranch in Arizona. Upon arrival, two ranch hands are missing and presumed dead. Then, when one guest dies after eating Mrs. Potter's famous chili con carne, she takes it personally and works even harder to find the killer.

The book includes a long but easy-to-make chili recipe (without the poison!), as well as other recipes such as salsa Mexicana, guacamole, albondigas soup, and capirotada - Mexican bread pudding.