Janet Laurence Essay - Critical Essays


Janet Laurence writes mystery novels peopled with entertaining, often eccentric, characters who add touches of wit, irony, and humor to the serious matter of murder. In the Darina Lisle series, the plots mix culinary activities with murder investigation. Darina is a well-respected cookbook writer with a special flair for uncovering clues and solving mysteries. Her romantic interest, William Pigram, is a professional detective with the CID. Laurence does not spare her heroine when it comes to presenting her with professional, personal, and crime-related problems. William, try as he will, constantly has difficulty accepting Darina’s spirit of independence and lack of time for him. Darina has a propensity for becoming involved with male culinary experts whose interest goes beyond food preparation, consequently complicating her professional life. Cooking shows, competitions, and demonstrations lead to murder.

Laurence creates authentic settings, often filled with local color, for her novels. Her characters, drawn from various social classes, are realistic and individualized so that the reader not only relates to them but also remembers them. Although solving the novel’s murder mystery remains the operating force behind the work, the daily life of Laurence’s characters, their culinary exploits, and their interpersonal relationships tend to push murder away from center stage. The reader wants to solve the mystery but finds many distractions along the way.

Laurence’s Canaletto series is set in the eighteenth century in England. The three novels in this series contrast sharply with the Darina Lisle series. Murder is gruesome and violent, and life is very dangerous. Laurence re-creates life in eighteenth century England among the pickpockets, prostitutes, and thieves as well as among the aristocracy. Much of the authenticity of her narrative can be attributed to her sensitive use of dialect and language appropriate to her characters. Detailed description, carefully delineated characters, and a complex plot take the reader on a fast-paced search to solve the crime.

Laurence’s nonseries novel To Kill the Past reveals yet another aspect of her writing. The cozy community atmosphere that often appears in the Darina Lisle series is replaced by an atmosphere of isolation, betrayal, and spine-chilling danger. Violence, dishonesty, amoralism, greed, and revenge are the standards of the world portrayed in the novel. Laurence explores the motivation behind crime and the psychological aspects of the characters.

Recipe for Death

In Recipe for Death (1992), Darina Lisle, culinary expert and amateur sleuth, becomes involved in the lives of the locals in Somerset, England, where she is living with William Pigram in his cottage. The cleverly constructed novel begins with an official cooking competition. Later a cooking competition among friends provides the opportunity for murder. Foreshadowing is a device Laurence uses fairly often in her novels. At times, her use of it is very subtle, and the reader only becomes aware of it at the end of the mystery.

This novel is structured with multiple plots in which two characters, Constance Fry and Nathalie Duke, are murdered. The Fry family is trying to keep its organic farm solvent. Pru Fry is renewing her relationship with her estranged husband, Simon Chapman, who is trying to keep his restaurant out of bankruptcy. Verity Fry is launching a culinary career and about to marry a wealthy businessman. Daniel Duke and Erica Strangeways are trying to establish a profitable business in the fresh-food industry and Darina and William are trying to save their romantic relationship. These multiple plots are further complicated by assumed identities and disguises.

Death at the Table

In Death at the Table (1994), when Darina accepts a position as a regular on the television show Table for Four, she becomes enmeshed in a triple murder and finds her own life in danger. First, Bruce Bennett, an Australian wine expert, mysteriously drops dead as the show’s stars share a Christmas toast....

(The entire section is 1692 words.)