by Sharon Tucker
Our most food-oriented holiday season approaches, and I am not alone in wanting new twists on the traditional foods we serve at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Luckily, we can research some of the techniques that make French cuisine a sensuous delight just by reading the mysteries Alexander Campion has written that feature Capucine Le Tellier, a Police Judiciare officer in Paris as well as her husband Alexandre Huguelet, a major food critic for Le Monde.
Between the two of them, mystery lovers who double as foodies will find much to recommend the duo, and while no recipes appear in the books, one’s own appreciation for well-chosen fresh ingredients and classic French recipes will skyrocket—I am making a chestnut dressing for the first time this year courtesy of the books’ influence. In addition, I have added several French cookbooks to my library because reading what Alexandre cooks or what Capu and he eat in restaurants must become a part of my life. While the prices of the wines on their table are often beyond our reach, their ebullient attitude toward life and love is not.
As the series begins, Capu is completely bored with her police career thus far in white-collar crime, despite her talent for it. She longs for immersion in the real life of the Paris streets: what she calls “real passions, real crimes.” Not a stretch to understand when we learn she was bred to what she considers tiresome bourgeois traditions, and she is too much a rebel to lead the careful life she is expected to lead. Her marriage to Alexandre is far from rebellious other than the disparity in their ages but as a well-respected food critic, he adds such dimension, good humor, and joie-de-vivre to her life that he might as well be forbidden fruit. Early on, she falls into a way around what she considers a stalled career and becomes the equivalent of a British superintendent only to find herself investigating her first murder in a restaurant.
The car manufacturer’s body found in a three Michelin star restaurant’s cooler in The Grave Gourmet (2010) opens up career possibilities for Capu hitherto undreamt of when she gets a temporary commissariat (lieutenant) post in what seems to be Homicide. Capu and the CSIs dispel the rumor that the restaurant is at fault and must uncover the real culprit(s). Seeing her cleverly work around the system that would keep her out of the job she wants and deserves is delightful—that she solves the crime with her new unit, and her husband is even better.
Food critic Gautier du Fresnay thought he was filming his latest food blog in Killer Critique (2012), but he filmed his own murder instead. Fresnay wielded a snarky wit, the substance of which was not lost in the manner of his death: drowning face down in a plate of lobster raviolis swimming in a tandoori and carrot sauce. Or did he drown? It soon becomes clear as other food critics meet similarly picturesque deaths, and Capu has found few clues to discover the murderer that Alexandre is the next logical victim. Can she allow him to risk his life in order for her to solve the crime?
In Death of a Chef (2013), Capu finds that she needs Alexandre’s help more than ever when an obsessive Michelin chef, Jean-Louis Brault, is discovered naked and dead in an antique Louis Vuitton trunk with a recently discharged shotgun. Complications and tensions in Brault’s life lead many to think his death is a suicide since he was lately distraught from a particularly vicious critic’s hounding. Oddly, the critic relished Brault’s dishes but consistently gave him foul reviews. Why?
I enjoy the playful tone of the Capucine mysteries as well as the many French words and phrases that send me to Google search. Some of the less than salubrious reviews Campion has received for these books amazes me. A parallel comes to mind: imposing one’s own cultural values on another culture and consequently denigrating it. How can readers miss the chess game Campion has made of the eternal war between the sexes? Although some may argue that sexism is not funny, and it is indeed anything but, what Campion does here is burlesque the whole notion with the undercurrent that as long as we all know what is going on the implacable sting is, though not lessened, at least we are wise to the stupidity of it all. The trick is to come up with a workaround. In a better world, what is sick about our cultures would be eliminated, so I appreciate the chance to shrug and laugh along with Capu and Alexandre and congratulate everyone who fights these inequities in their own unique way.
Click on this link to purchase any of these books. If you have ad blocker on you may not see this link:
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases.