Welcome Leslie Karst, author of the fabulous Sally Solari mysteries!
Tell us a bit about your new book.
Death al Fresco is the third book in my Sally Solari culinary mystery series. Sally practically grew up in the kitchen of her family’s Italian seafood joint out on the historic Santa Cruz wharf. But ever since inheriting the trendy, upscale restaurant Gauguin from her aunt, she’s been trying to extricate herself from Solari’s so she can concentrate on running her new place.
Alas, it is not to be. In this third book, Sally’s been roped into helping her dad host a huge outdoor dinner at Solari’s in honor of the visiting mayor from Liguria, the birthplace of Sally’s great-grandfather. But just weeks before the big event, her dog sniffs out the body of an Italian fisherman—one of the Solari’s regulars—entangled in a pile of kelp on the beach. And when Sally’s father is accused of allowing the old man to plunge to his death after drinking too much during dinner, Sally’s life becomes very complicated, indeed.
What inspired you to write it?
Although the first two books in the series certainly involve the family restaurant, Solari’s, they were a bit more concerned with Gauguin, and with Sally’s trial by fire in learning the ropes of running a restaurant so very different from the old-school eatery she grew up around. So for book three, I decided it would be fun to focus instead on the Italian-American culture surrounding Solari’s, and the colorful cast of characters who frequent the hundred-year-old fisherman’s wharf on which the restaurant sits.
What do you think makes a good story?
Any good mystery story requires that perfect balance between being possible to solve (i.e., the proper placement of clues) yet being sneaky enough to make the solution tricky, all without being unfair. To my mind, this is by far the most difficult aspect of writing the book.
But to make the story truly engaging, it needs more than simply a clever whodunit. My favorite crime novels also incorporate separate themes and subplots that are woven into the mystery, and which serve to flesh out the story and give the reader a glimpse into some new culture or way of life. Dorothy L. Sayers was a master at this, with her peeks into the worlds of London advertising (Murder Must Advertise), bell ringing (The Nine Tailors), and academia (Gaudy Night).
Lastly, a good culinary mystery must, of course, abound with food and cooking, the more delectably described the better. In the best of the genre, the food is at the heart of the story, but as long as the reader is left salivating and hungry, I’d say the author has done her job well.
How do you incorporate all that into your books?
As far as the placing of the clues and red herrings goes, that’s basically a matter of careful outlining, painstaking attention to detail, and sleepless nights stressing about your plot. As I said before, this part is hard.
But the other two items are, if not easy, at least way more fun for me. Death al Fresco is, at its most basic level, simply the story of Sally trying to figure out if the old fisherman found washed up on the beach was murdered and, if so, who did it. But other parallel plot lines keep the story moving forward as well: How will Sally juggle managing Gauguin, the restaurant she recently inherited, as well as putting all that time and work into helping her dad with the big dinner at Solari’s? And how will her involvement with Gauguin effect her relationship with her father who, fiercely proud of the family’s traditional restaurant, is convinced that Sally now looks down on her family heritage?
And as for the culinary aspect? Well, that’s the candy part for me. Nothing is more fun that inventing mouth-watering dishes for my characters to cook and consume, and then describing them in the most enticing manner possible. The only downside is that nine times out of ten, I get so hungry writing the food bits that I have to stop mid-scene and head to the kitchen for a little smackerel of something.
What’s next for you?
I’m just finishing up the first draft of Sally Solari number four (working title, Murder from Scratch), which concerns the sense of touch. The mother of a distant cousin of Sally’s has just been found dead at home of a drug overdose, and the cousin—Evelyn, who is blind—is too freaked out to go back to her house right away, so Sally’s dad convinces Sally to let her come to stay for a few weeks.
Initially leery of having to “babysit” this twenty-year-old while she’s busy running her restaurant, Gauguin, Sally quickly realizes that Evelyn is amazingly competent, and has a wry sense of humor, to boot. In addition, due to her lack of vision, Evelyn’s other senses—in particular that of touch—are much more heightened than Sally’s. As a result, not only can Evelyn whip up a mean batch of fresh pasta for a nightly special at Gauguin, but she becomes invaluable to Sally as the two of them delve into the real reason for the death of Evelyn’s mom.
The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder, Death al Fresco), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts.