REVIEW: BANQUET OF LIES BY MICHELLE DIENER

BANQUET OF LIES

Author: Michelle Diener
Gallery Books RRP $16.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

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Few are who they seem in Banquet of Lies, Michelle Diener’s latest historical suspense. The book showcases Diener’s talent for serving up colourful characters, and rich mystery and intrigue with a dash of romance and a hint of spice. As someone who loves to cook and thinks banquets are pretty cool, this fusion of food, mystery, history and romance in Banquet of Lies turned out to be most satisfying.

It’s 1812 and Giselle Barrington is leading a double life in London. Her father, a British spy, was murdered in front of Giselle (Gigi) in Stockholm, and she fled with a document he’d given her earlier for safekeeping; now in London, frightened and alone, she must rely on herself to stay safe, find and expose the killer before her finds her, and get the politically-explosive documents to the right person. Ever-resourceful, she disguises herself as a French cook and finds work in a nobleman’s kitchen, guessing rightly that no one would look for a wealthy society lady ‘below stairs’; here, she juggles cooking with spy catching, discovering along the way a new perspective on life as a servant.

Her employer, Lord Aldridge (Jonathan), is impressed with her cooking, but even more so by the so-called Madame Leveel’s magnetic, alluring presence and inexplicable familiarity: “Madame Leveel had taken him unaware, popping up behind them like some kind of exotic jack-in-the-box, all sweeping dark lashes and plump lips, tied up in an apron that showed all her dips and curves.” Soon the two become embroiled in a power imbalance between master and servant, fighting an attraction that in their worlds can never truly be satisfied or accepted. In the midst of this, Gigi must work out who her allies and enemies are so she can put to rest the question of her father’s murder.

This is the second book I’ve read by Diener (see my review of The Emperor’s Conspiracy) and like the first, it’s more historical mystery than historical romance; it has romantic elements, but the simmering attraction between Jonathan and Gigi is secondary to the spy-crime-mystery story line, and that of Gigi fitting into a world she was not born into. The story is well-researched, with the spy aspect based on real events when Russia, England and Sweden signed secret agreements against France; the author also researched chefs and cooking of the Regency period so Gigi’s French cookery was authentic to the period.

Gigi is an interesting character – headstrong and stubborn, but also kind-hearted and loyal. She’s both a woman of her times and ahead of her time – while very much aware of the social proprieties of the time, she demands equal pay to male chefs, expresses a desire to help poverty-struck women and does not like the way women, especially those who are poor, are controlled and relegated to invisibility. I liked her, but I could see how her manner would rub someone like Edgar, Lord Aldridge’s butler, the wrong way – she tries to hide it, but her social superiority isn’t as invisible as she’d like it to be, even if her co-workers can’t put their finger on what it is about her (perhaps they think it is just the French way). She develops well over the novel, coming to a realisation through her experiences, that she is fortunate to have been born into the social class she was, and showing an empathy she may never have otherwise done had life been different. Jonathan wasn’t as a strong a character for me – I couldn’t quite believe he didn’t put two and two together and make four earlier – but he showed some mettle towards the end.

Back to the ‘few are who they seem’ theme – other characters are used to create the banquet of lies and enhance the “are they allies or enemies” suspense. I found myself wondering at times, trying to read between the lines and guess whether some of the characters were trustworthy, just as Gigi must have done. Edgar, caught in a power-play with Gigi, suspects her of being a spy and has her arrested – but is this a red herring and or just insecurity? Lord Whittaker, whose French chef is a good friend of Gigi’s, masks a keen intelligence behind an act of drunken rambling – he’s spying, but whose side is he on? And what of Dervish and the Durnhams? Diener backed the story with a good cast of characters who all contributed to the suspense and development of the main characters.

All in all, Banquet of Lies was a satisfying treat, with a rich, multi-faceted flavour. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and suspense. Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: Giselle whips up plenty of delectable French fare in this book – she had me with the sabayon au muscat.