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Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham? Hardcover – April 24, 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
In her third excursion into culinary crime (after Murder on the Gravy Train and the Agatha-nominated The Butter Did It) Richman throws in the requisite ingredients for a tasty whodunit, but with mixed success. Food editor Chas Wheatley is fuming over the Washington Examiner's latest hire: slick, slimy Ringo Laurenge. He may have the stuff of great reporters, but he also has a knack for annoying just about everyone else on the staff. Chas has been working on a story about America's most expensive restaurants, but she makes the mistake of telling her new colleague about it. She soon discovers that Laurenge is worming himself into a position to take over the story and leave Chas out in the cold. Her best friend, African-American theater critic Sherele Travis, encounters a more vicious side of Laurenge when he brutally assaults her. As Richman goes to tedious lengths to build a damning portrait of the obnoxious reporter, Chas and Sherele delve into Laurenge's past, trying to find some way of spiking his guns. Long after many readers will have given up on ever getting to a dead body, someone on the staff resorts to murder as the solution, when Laurenge dies from apparently lethal Virginia ham served at a work function. Though the author writes with clarity and passion about food, she explores character at the expense of suspense. The anticlimactic solution to the crime comes too late. Most readers will have put the book down and gone in search of food, thanks to the mouth-watering descriptions of the goodies Chas likes to eat. Agent, Bob Barnett. 7-city author tour. (May 3)Forecast: With The Butter Did It to be a CBS-TV Movie of the Week this fall and other film adaptations to follow, Richman should make a delicious leap in sales.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
In her third culinary mystery (Murder on the Gravy Train, The Butter Did It), Chas Wheatley, food critic for a Washington, DC newspaper (and amateur sleuth), reels with shock after the paper's new hire, a charming but dangerously ambitious and deceitful young man, tries to put one of her favorite restaurants out of business. Fortunately, Chas, by now knowing the score, goes on the offensive, digs into his past for ammunition, and counterattacks. The man's murder, already foreshadowed, comes as no surprise, nor does the lengthy list of willing suspects. Very nicely written, with plenty of attention to food, character, and motive; an excellent selection.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I guess what was missing for me was the food writing. Usually lusciously sensual, it fell a bit flat this time around. I still enjoyed the book, but I didn't come away with restaurant desires and recipe ideas. This was published in 2002, so perhaps there won't be any more, which is a shame. Richman is a terrific writer, dishing out realistic dialogue and prose that is charming and intelligent.
However, Ringo proves to be arrogant and nasty rather quickly, earning the hatred of the entire news room in spite of his brilliance at writing a story. No one is saved from his scathing remarks and soon much of the staff wants him dead including restaurant critic Chas Wheatley, who has had the boy wonder steal some of her ideas. However, she believes he crosses the line when he attacks a local restaurant, Two Views. Not long afterward, someone decides to take matters into their own hands and kills Ringo. Chas wonders if perhaps one of her colleagues murdered the odious journalist or perhaps someone involved in the restaurant he dissed did the deed. She starts her own investigation to find out who did it and why.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA HAM, the third Wheatley culinary mystery, is an exciting, cleverly plotted who-done-it with a myriad of suspects as the victim is universally loathed. Chas is a wonderful character and the support cast adds to the savory demeanor of a gourmet delight of an amateur sleuth novel.
Yet, that entre presentation, as yummy as it was, was like a dented "old hat" entree compared to Chas' LA "foodie" chefs offering gourmet Indonesian imprints with lamb in a dense red-brick-sauce, unlimited large, circular, flat-but-spongy bread (of some luscious sort, with a foreign name I would have been able to type-in here if I hadn't LOST that paperback!) used instead of utensils and plates for holding and scooping a collection of multicolored, exotically flavored, spicy-pureed-veggie dips.
Imitating a satisfying wine, this novel gave a fine finish as an easy, light-entertainment read, and the denouement rose well above the plot leading up. I did not expect that the final chapter to be dramatically different in depth and complexity than preceding chapters, though I had hoped the ending would live up to the excellence of the rest of the book. I was shocked that the ending was a plateau above the fantastic machinations leading to it from page one.
Way back in Once Upon a Time Land, in 2002, when I began needing something similar to Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy novels, this was one of the first culinary mysteries I was able to get into. I was craving taste hits, even more than Goldy gives, but some of the culinaries I found at that time pointed tentatively at a food item, then moved away without satisfying that need for every nuance of flavor. It's the taste on the tongue, in the mouth, the chewing and moaning I was seeking.
Richman's "hamming it up" stuck to my emaciated ribs and put my appetite on Prozac. Yet, the munching references didn't push me to eat more in reality; I don't know why. I had finally found a culinary cozy which went beyond that simple, taking a bite of bread into ...
"... easing teeth into the spongy texture of a warm, yeasty baguette, with feathery soft center and the cracking crunch covering ..."
The above is my statement; I did not lift it from the ham novel, though I could quote a huge number of better ones than the above. If you want to read those, please feel very graciously shoved to go buy the book! You'll find them in nearly every chapter.
Many culinary offerings I found with recipes included didn't even have the "taking a bite of bread" part. They might stoop to discussing clues over dinner, or around a mug of coffee; but the reader has to assume without a word that the brew is steaming, maybe even hissing the essence of the freshest beans from Baghdad.
I should note here, though, that all the culinaries I read, even without constant drool hits, had plenty of other types of escape fiction draws to fully satisfy the most saliva deprived reader. It just took me a while to let go of my craving for details on the bite of bread. I still don't know why I was searching so obsessively for that sensual touch, but I have a few brain sparts on the subject, which I will put aside for now.
The first several paragraphs felt like a nose out of joint. A female character was disgruntled that someone in her newspaper office had followed personal "soul drives" and put out something before this character had picked up a pen, let alone risked the failure, and expended the daily effort to initiate, carry, and complete a product. Instead of "I did this" (the child's voice in the TV ad), this journalists was spitting the soured, more mature motto, "I could have done that ... better."
The point was, she didn't do it. This character didn't write her "soul package" until several others had proven its dramatic draw, at which point the "After Chevy" product often carries the bitterness of competition-timing-lost.
At first, the characters in this Virginia Ham novel felt like the embittered "could have been firsts" if they had followed their souls regularly. Yet they rarely do, and remain in a constant state of nose twitching, gravel ax, disappointment. This type of crusty, urbane, Great Gatsby type character doesn't appeal to me, at least not as much as Davidson's "real" people who continually invest in a moment-by-moment LIFE, like continuous cleaning ovens.
I hoped I was wrong, though, and that possibly I was imposing my own "sour grapes" at having been following my soul all my life and producing, producing, producing, but not manifesting (yet) a big launch of my work.
I retained Hope that this "ham" series would capture me with characters and plot as well as or better than Grafton and Davidson's works had. It had been refreshing to find mysteries flavored well enough to come alive for me nearly as easily as the Historic Romance biggies always had; I used to read at least 3 of those/wk, with Julie Garwood and Amanda Quick being my favorites. Mysteries had always read more slowly for me.
I continued reading WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA HAM during a solitary lunch at the RED ROBIN, and, without noticing right away what was happening, I became cozily "bonded" with female character, food critic columnist, Chas Wheatley. It didn't take many pages, though, to begin realizing that this capture had taken place as a result of author Richman's artfully exposing a just right vulnerability around the Chas "touch cookie" trait.
And, I had NO idea that LA sported the world's most expensive restaurant with a set $300.00 fee for any dinner. I was sufficiently chagrined into being grateful that my not being a sophisticated-cultural-savant would be slightly shored up by reading Richman's Wheately series. Trailing an aroma of small town nativity, it's not that I don't treasure my rich but homey background. However, along with lots of other readers, I'm happy to be able to appreciate the LA "out there" collection, without letting go of the Linus blankie, the long enduring, simple comfort foods... like Sloppy Joe's... For that story, see my Amazon Short, Coal & Coca-cola.
Live long and eat well,
Linda G. Shelnutt
Who's Afraid, light and frothy as a cozy, would make a good selection for beach or long plane ride. Fun and undemanding.