Add Cyanide to Taste by Karmen Špiljak

Kurt Wallander’s visits to his favourite cafe Fridolf’s Konditori in Ystad. Martin Beck’s meetings with his daughter Inger at the dimly lit restaurants in Stockholm. Harry Hole’s frequent trips to the old-school Restaurant Schrøder in Oslo though he does not care much for what’s on offer. Solemn Erlendur tucking into the classic Icelandic dish of boiled sheep’s head and potatoes. Salvo Montalbano enjoying delicious dinners and gorgeous sunsets on the terrace of his local eatery.

‘Food and stories aren’t that different; they nurture in different ways.’

The food examples in the crime fiction are endless, and so often allow for some breathing space when the plots become too intense and crimes are too gruesome. They also reflect protagonists’ state of mind, giving detectives and inspectors a moment of normality and distraction from a complex case, or become the quite opposite when opening a fridge represents looking at a sad lonely onion and a dry piece of cheese thus signifying the personal life’s emptiness. However, good food, or lack of it, is always present.

Karmen Špiljak, a Slovenian-Belgian writer currently living in Brazil, loves food AND crime fiction. In her carefully assembled menu of international culinary noir with some unexpected notes, food is the pièce de résistance although it does not overpower the main ideas. Themes are interesting and surprising: a cursed recipe, a suspicious cook, friends turning against each other, or a mysterious disappearing pub.

I was convinced that the number thirteen is the one that fills many people with trepidation. Superstition can be a powerful emotion. However, in Špiljak’s latest piece of creative fiction it is the fourteen that brings some truly deadly thoughts. That specific number of short stories delivers both sinister and delicious twists and reactions as the author combines passion for words and cuisine, offers food for the soul and recipes to be followed should anyone wanted to recreate the mood of the perfectly formed and narrated descriptions from the collection. What I found especially enjoyable is the lightness of touch of her writing style, and the flow of narration with which she concocts her mouth-watering noir dishes. There are cooked to perfection thrillers, ghost stories and mysteries. And even a slightly futuristic take on the pact with the Devil that feeds on people’s desire to pay with their lives for the most sensational feast. Although the food is the muse, sustenance, invitation or joy, it nevertheless can turn into the expression of deeply hidden emotions, unforgotten secrets, and become a catalyst for change or closure. 

None of the recipes proposed in the second part of the book contain or advise the use cyanide. Far from it. There’s no need to transfer anger or hurt into the readers’ reality. Yet it’s fascinating to read about a mother who had always expressed her love for the family and unspoken trauma through cooking delicious cakes, pies and biscuits. She also discovered a bitter-sweet formula for practical revenge. Which means that from now on I will think of fruit in a different way. Fruit is wonderful but can lead to a sinister demise if people are not careful. Or if a crime has been committed already. 

As the author focuses so much on various aspects of food, and how we relate to cooking, eating, enjoying, or not, a variety of easy and complicated dishes, she asks the reader what they were eating while reading Add Cyanide to Taste. Well, I was lucky to enjoy the Norwegian waffles with strawberry jam and soured cream which makes the perfect combination for this particular easy dish. The soured cream is a worthy ingredient in my kitchen but that’s another story. Not murderous. 

You can get to know Karmen Špiljak and order this collection of short stories Add Cyanide To Taste

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