Up to Scratch
Murder from Scratch
by Leslie Karst
Crooked Lane Books, 2019
reviewed by Seana Graham
As I’ve been reading this latest offering, fourth in the Sally Solari series written by my friend Leslie Karst, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good cozy mystery so enjoyable. Why, for example, was the television series Murder, She Wrote so successful, despite the complete improbability that a woman who traveled extensively would end up not only finding but solving a murder in every town she visited?
There are a couple of elements I can see at work. One, of course, is that for the mystery lover there has to be a true puzzle with a satisfying solution.
But I think in the most successful cozies, the amateur detective protagonist is also living a life that intrigues us or that we could see ourselves enjoying. This is certainly the case with Sally Solari, a former lawyer who now has had a hand in two of her Italian American family’s restaurants in Santa Cruz, California. Sally is a cycling enthusiast, occasional choir member, and drives a cool old ’57 Thunderbird she inherited from her aunt. She has also inherited an even cooler dog named Buster.
Although Karst hasn’t solved any real-life murders (at least to my knowledge), she has in fact done most of the other things her crime fighter gets into. In addition to being a retired lawyer herself, she has studied at a culinary school, sung in a prestigious local choir, and taken many, or, more probably, all of the bike trips around Santa Cruz and environs that she has Sally making throughout all her books.
The murder in this story hits a little closer to home for Sally, as the death is that of a cousin’s wife. Sally soon finds herself involved in helping her blind cousin Evelyn deal with the loss of her mother, first by taking her in while she grieves and then working together with her to solve the crime. Along the way, she learns many things about how the blind adapt to the sighted world.
As Leslie has said in an interview, the trick is to season these stories with interest from the various areas they’re exploring without burdening the reader with too many arcane details. In Murder from Scratch, Evelyn’s other heightened senses do credibly play a role in finding the identity of the killer.
On a personal note, it is powerfully nostalgic to read a novel set in the town I live in during the incredibly recent past, when the restaurant scene and the bar scene were as lively as they appear here. Although restaurants are cautiously opening up again in Santa Cruz as I write, even in the best-case scenario, they won’t have the freewheeling vitality described here for some time to come. And we all miss that.
In partial compensation, all the Sally Solari books are generously accompanied by recipes of meals that have appeared in the story.
Although it might not be immediately obvious to readers, there is a theme to these Sally Solari mysteries. Each of them has dealt with a different sense, this one being about touch. Karst has said in the past that the series stops when she has explored all of them, which would mean we only have one more to look forward to.
I do hope that someone will point out to her that there’s also a ‘sixth sense’ that’s just dying to be included in this excellent series.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.