I’ve previously reviewed, with enormous pleasure, the books of Tansy Rayner Roberts: Power and Majesty and The Shattered City from her Creature Court series (Reign of Beasts is next on my to read list!). She also wrote the marvellous Love and Romanpunk for the Twelve Planets series, which my characters Gary and Lissa reviewed.
Now she’s at it again, writing crime under the name Livia Day. Her two novels and one novella in the Cafe la Femme series are all set in Hobart, and feature Tabitha Darling – maker of divine foodstuffs, wearer of fabulous frocks, and stumbler-upon of mysteries. Tabitha comes from a fine pedigree of accidental sleuths, from Miss Marple to Veronica Mars, and Hobart gets its chance to shine as a unique locale for murder, mayhem and really good coffee.
A Trifle Dead
In Tabitha Darling’s first outing as an accidental detective, we get to meet a great cast of supporting characters, from the policeman Leo Bishop, who insists on treating her like she’s still 16, to her old friend (or frenemy?) Xanthippe, who seems half Emma Peel, half Catwoman, and the new guy in town, Stewart McTavish, the blogger with the sexy Scottish accent and a secret.
Tabitha is practically an adopted daughter to Hobart’s police, being the daughter of a policeman and the woman who ran the police canteen. The association is not a universally happy one, and she’s determined to be her own woman. Her own woman with her own restaurant, a gift for really good salads, dressing with flair, and for getting into a ridiculous amount of trouble.
The trouble starts with an unexpected body in a net, and what appears to be an accidental death. It builds slowly, with strange practical jokes that become much more serious. At the same time, Tabitha’s personal life gets… complicated.
A Trifle Dead is a fabulous confection of a crime novel! I love books that use Australian locales well, and bring in a certain tactile freshness with the details. It paints a gorgeous picture of Hobart, sparks up the senses with lush descriptions of food and fashion, and is peopled with dashing characters. It’s funny, twisty and with a satisfying conclusion that leaves room for more.
Buy A Trifle Dead
The Blackmail Blend
This novella continues the pizzazz and humour of the A Trifle Dead, with Tabitha, her splendidly individual array of friends, her gorgeous fashion sense, her dedication to good food, her complicated love life and her astonishing capacity to fall face first into attempted murder – this time of a famous (or possibly notorious) romance writer who is having a huge and fancy high tea at Tabitha’s cafe.
There’s a charming hilarity in the details of the wannabe writers meeting their hero and discovering why that’s such a bad idea. Romance novellist Beatrice Wild is a deeply unpleasant person, and when there’s an attempt on her life at the afternoon tea, there’s no shortage of suspects.
Once Tabitha is more or less over the shock of a murder attempt happening at her cafe (what will that do to her reputation?! Or more importantly – to her cafe’s repuation?!) she, as always, dives right into the thick of it, uncovering historical inaccuracy, blackmail, secrets, hidden identities, and a motive for murder.
It’s a rollicking fast and enormously fun read, and even in a short story there are twists, surprises, and two gorgeous men that are frustratingly difficult to choose between.
Buy The Blackmail Blend (ebook only)
The second full-length Cafe La Femme novel has Tabitha swearing on the one hand that she no longer intends to be a girl detective – her not-boyfriend Bishop really disapproves of that – and on the other, that she is just going help a teeeeeensy bit with this missing person business.
Of course, chaos reigns, dressed in fabulous vintage frocks. Between obsessive experimentation with ice cream flavours, working out how to not tell Bishop things he probably ought to know and fearing that she’s become a boring old Vanilla person, Tabitha stumbles into murder, imposturing, experimental film and that persistent problem that she’s going out with one man while sporadically kissing quite another.
The energy and humour continue to fizz in Drowned Vanilla, and though the situations and the fantastic characters are outside the probable, the story retains enough grounding in reality to not go flying completely off into the unknown. Hobart and its surrounding towns are a strong presence that make me want to visit that pretty little town again, and I love the fact that Tabitha’s love life, while complicated and seemingly irresolvable, remains completely in Tabitha’s control. There doesn’t have to be a neat ending every time, and it’s easy to see the appeal of both Stewart and Bishop.
The supporting characters are charming, even when you want to slap some of them, and Tabitha Darling remains a very engaging hero. The chefs out there might even want to try the ice cream recipes scattered throughout the book.
Buy Drowned Vanilla
The next book in the series, Keep Calm and Kill the Chef, is due out this year. I can’t wait!