Former home maker Carolyn Blue, a little at a loose end after her children (twenty-year-old Chris and eighteen-year-old Gwen) leave for college. Though no longer interested in producing food, Carolyn has always been interested in eating in, especially if she can tie it in with historical facts (her major at college). With the enthusiastic support of her beloved chemistry professor husband Jason, Carolyn begins writing columns of food that are syndicated nationally. Though by no means a household name, being a writer gives Carolyn access that she may not otherwise have.
In the first novel Carolyn and Jason go to New Orleans to attend an academic conference – well, Jason attends and Carolyn explored the unique cuisine of Creole and Cajun culture. When Julienne, one of their friends from college, disappears in the middle of dinner, Carolyn seems to be the only one concerned and is determined to get to the bottom of it even if the police and Julienne’s husband (with whom she was fighting) are happy to leave it alone.
The second novel takes place in New York, where Jason is being interviewed for a position in private industry. The man who invited Jason, and who had expressed concern about something happening that he was uncomfortable discussing on the phone, is murdered in a diner on the day they arrive and Carolyn is determined to discover what happened. This book introduces chapters from both Carolyn and Jason’s perspectives.
The third instalment sees Jason, Carolyn and son Chris (on spring break) travelling through Normandy and the Loire valley, combining Carolyn’s two great loves – history and cuisine. The tour was arranged by Jason’s university, and three of the tourists are in vying for position as dean; the overbearing Professor Childeric, who takes a special liking to Carolyn, is beset by accidents and convinced that one of his rivals is trying to kill him. Certainly something’s going on, and Carolyn resolves to get to the bottom of it, though her proximity to the unfortunate (and highly annoying) history expert sees her at risk as well.
The final in the series (for me) is set in San Francisco, home of Jason’s feminist academic mother who’s been arrested for first-degree murder. With Jason occupied by his conference, it falls to Carolyn to uncover the real perpetrator and thus free her intimidating mother-in-law, but not without enjoying the epicurean delights of the bay.
Fairbanks’s heroine is likeable, the books have a scattering of recipes throughout, and the secondary characters are relatively three-dimensional. As is so often the case with amateur detective novels, there’s a strong reliance on coincidence (everyone knows everyone else, for example) and good luck, and Carolyn seems to have a Sookie Stackhouse-esque allure that draws men everywhere to be attracted to her despite her modest appearance, happy marriage and pleasant but not exceptional intellect.
There’s a disturbing preponderance of mentally ill characters in a variety of flavours, and I wasn’t thrilled by the fat woman in Chocolate Quake digging into three desserts, as though all fat people are also gluttonous. But I otherwise enjoyed taking a little break from worthy works, and now feel prepared to dive back into more challenging (though not necessarily more enjoyable) writing. – Alex