DEATH CUP by Irna van Zyl, published by Penguin Random House South Africa, 2018.
How could I resist? A thriller sub-titled Murder is on the Menu, set against an Overberg background dripping with fickle foodies, on-trend restaurateurs and self-important chefs, followed by a series of deadly dishes and human corpses.
This is van Zyl’s second detective novel and is translated from the Afrikaans original, titled Gifbeker. I was impressed by the author’s culinary knowledge of gastronomic contests, trends and top restaurants. Having raced through the book, I came across pages of generous acknowledgements where she listed cookbooks that afforded her culinary knowledge both trendy and basic, chefs who shared their passion and knowledge especially with regard to foraging, both seafood and funghi and techniques like open fire cooking in the kitchens.
From page one the tension is tangible, as a well-known and not always popular food blogger keels over in a top restaurant and dies – a highly poisonous mushroom provomg responsible for her untimely death. Zebardines is one of the top restaurants in the country and is gearing up for the chef of the year and restaurant awards so timing could not be worse –Zeb the chef is celebrated, awarded, young and black – with everything going for him
Detective Storm van der Merwe is on the case, helped by a couple of colleagues, some friendly, others wary. Storm has her own problems to contend with , not least of which is Moerdyk, a former policeman who had quit the force ahead of being fired. He usually turns up at Storm’s doorstep when least wanted, such as just after the first murder. He is determined to stay, and help her find a new place to rent as the owner (also a restaurateur) has complained about her three dogs.
Tracey the waitress and seducer of Zeb is found dead in the restaurant wine cellar – victim number two and the plot thickens as Zeb is attacked by unknown men but survives and is taken to hospital. And Storm has to contend with Pistorius, her supervisor, a molester with past history and now transferred to Hermanus. Two men break into her bedroom and steal her phone and iPad, and her favourite dog Purdey disappears as they run away.
Protesters outside Zebardines, rumours of a food website takeover, a smooth property developer (and old boyfriend of Storms) add complexity to an already crowded scene. Tension reaches breaking point , as a third victim, Maria Louw Zebardine’s maitre ‘d is attacked but survives and the glitzy restaurant awards event in Cape Town take place with heightened security in place . Storm herself is in danger before the murderer is stopped – and as in all good thrillers, not many readers will guess who this is.
Topical, fast-paced, complex and accurately depicting Hermanus backgrounds, this is a well-executed and gripping crime novel.