I recently finished reading the rest of the short stories in the generous Noir at the Salad Bar anthology. As William Cowper stated in a poem back in 1785, "Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor." This anthology is perfectly seasoned.
Antipastadead by Lorraine Sharma Nelson is a traditional locked room mystery. Or nearly locked. The suspects are women of privilege who have their retreat at an English estate shattered by murder. The detectives leave each evening while the women remain at the estate. Set in 1970, the story has an added layer of interest as Detective Chief Inspector Molly "Mo" Marbury struggles to prove herself as a female detective. I enjoyed trying to puzzle out the clues to reach a solution before the big reveal at the end.
Many of the stories in this anthology follow the pattern of the traditional mystery, each taking different tactics and engaging different storytelling styles to reach that end. Others are a departure from what I would expect in a mystery anthology.
Beef Stew by E L Johnson is a mystery wrapped inside a fantasy tale. Ogblud the Ogre doesn't like the taste of human, and in fact has never killed one of the small two-legged pink creatures. He secretly takes cooking lessons from the humans. When he tries to introduce his family to the delights of beef stew, he learns why he is so different from his proper human-eating brothers.
A Murder of Crows by Mara Buck opens with John, who doesn't enjoy butchering crows for a pie. As a cook in a specialty game restaurant, he goes along with his orders. There is a murder mystery at the center of this tale, wrapped inside a crust of horror.
There is great variety in how the anthology authors deal with the theme of food. For some, a restaurant or other dining service is the setting. For others, food is involved with the murder. The next two stories contrast feast and famine.
Fed Up by Louise Taylor set me up with an expectation for a predictable ending, then turned the tables on me. Mindy marries Daryl for his money. They have more in common than expected, as both come from impoverished childhoods. Neither is a particularly likable person, but I found myself rooting for Daryl because Mindy was such a heartless witch. She sets about killing her husband by satisfying his gluttonous appetite. Food descriptions fill this story. The twists and turns began early. The ending was a delight.
Playing Games by Elaine Togneri presents the opposite approach to the theme. Mai is an unwilling immigrant, abducted from Vietnam to work in a Chinese restaurant on the West Coast. She starves herself to stay skinny in order to avoid being sent to a whorehouse. One bleak night, the doors to the laborers' dormitory burst open, and she's hustled away. This is an interesting tale with a satisfying layer of complexity.
Noir at the Salad Bar is packed with variety, containing thirty short stories. There is certain to be a tale to please every mystery reader.
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