A Starring Role for Meals in Mystery

Review of “Outerborough Blues” by Andrew Cotto

skull4Great food is sensuous, alluring, and… reassuring. That means well-written eating scenes can serve plenty of entertaining and useful functions in thrillers and mysteries. Such scenes can offer readers a break in tension while serving as a bridge between much higher-octane situations; they can both promote and illustrate bonding between characters; and they can also reveal that our hero chef (or villain) has a nurturing side, and a few skills other than delivering karate kicks and impressive feats of marksmanship.

An excellent case in point is Andrew Cotto’s “Outerborough Blues.” Outerborough Blues by Andrew CottoOuterborough Blues.
Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto.

This concise, fast-paced novel is illuminated by a half-dozen well-crafted food scenarios. They actually are an integral part of the story, since cooking is the singular skill that allows the hero – a young, half-Sicilian drifter named Caesar Stiles – to roam around the U.S. and make a living wherever he happens to land. During the six days of this tale, he’s hanging his hat in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and working a bar, restaurant and juke joint called The Notch.

Among the many creative and unusual charms of the book is that it takes quite a while, nearly half its length, to present its true villain, Caesar’s ex-con brother, Sallie. En route, it artfully establishes a gritty urban setting, invigorated by music, wreathed in smoke, and inhabited by a highly believable ethnic cast of characters. It also establishes a plot somewhat grander than the typical noir conceit (a hero must traverse a noisome pit of crime and sleaze, somehow defeat or evade the baddies, and emerge amazingly intact on the other side). In this case, an extra dimension is conferred by a home-coming theme: wanderer Caesar must fulfill his mom’s dying wish that he root himself back in his family’s old place, and learn to inhabit his true identity and his life.

To achieve this, Caesar must unravel twin conspiracies to capitalize on the coming gentrification of Brooklyn, choose a winner, defeat hoodlums bent on his destruction, and help a cute French girl save her artist-brother from drugs and decadence. There’s a lot going on, but Cotto lets the reader rest by periodically providing a feast like this: “With the bones I’d taken out of the ducks, I made a stock; from that stock, I made a reduction. From the reduction I made a glaze. With that glaze I shellacked the roasting ducks to a deep mahogany, then stuffed each duck’s hollowed cavity with jambalaya, a thick rice dish with heavy seasoning and crumbled Cajun sausage. For the final step, I surgically cut each duck into eight slices, held the body together, re-glazed one last time, and put them all back in the oven to seal.”

If that scene doesn’t make your mouth water, go buy yourself a baggage tag, write down your name, age and address, tie it to your big toe, then lie back and wait for the morgue boys to come pick you up.

This is a fine banquet of a book, yet not without its flaws. Numero uno problemo is that Caesar’s pal, Don from Trinidad, is a good-hearted bad-ass who j-u-s-t happens to show up big-time whenever Caesar gets in a tight spot. The creaky sound of a deus ex machina being lowered into a plot is never a good thing. And the other problem is a number of copy-editing mistakes so lousy that they jolt a reader right out of the story. Here are a few: “viles” for “vials”; “women” when it should be “woman”; “sown” for “sewn”.

Memo to “ig Publishing” (which brought out the book) – a computer spell-check does not suffice! Hire a good copy editor! With the shrinkage of newspapers, there’s plenty of experienced people out there, many of whom are eager to find work.

End of sermon. Now, I’m hungry. Wonder if I can find a restaurant that serves jambalaya-stuffed roast duck.