Prepare to have your appetite whetted, for both Leslie Karst’s books and for a good meal.
The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. She now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder, Death al Fresco), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts.
Please help us welcome Leslie Karst!
Kass Lamb (on behalf of misterio press): We like to start with a “tell us about yourself” question. What two or three things do people need to know in order to understand who you are?
Leslie Karst: First, that I’ve been in Santa Cruz, where my mysteries are set, since 1974. I moved here to attend college and, after one look at the towering redwoods marching down to the spectacular seaside cliffs, I knew it was where I wanted to live long term. I think of the Sally Solari series as a sort of love letter to the place.
Second, yes, I do have quite a bit in common with my protagonist: we’re both ex-lawyers who are obsessed with food, and we both share a love of dogs, cycling, the Giants baseball team, and opera.
But Sally is far braver than I am—perhaps even too risky. I’d never have the nerve to investigate an actual murder. (Then again, I’d make for a pretty uninteresting sleuth, as well.) And I’d never dream of running a real-life restaurant; the work is far too exhausting and takes up too much of your life. But make-believe-running one in my books is loads of fun.
Kass: What type of mysteries do you write—cozies, traditional whodunnits, historical, etc.—and why does that subgenre appeal to you as a writer? Do you also prefer it as a reader?
Leslie Karst: My Sally Solari culinary mysteries are categorized by my publisher, Crooked Lane Books, as “cozies,” and the covers and marketing for the books reflect this. But to my mind, the series actually falls somewhere on the spectrum between cozies and what are now referred to as “traditional” mysteries. Sally can tend toward the sarcastic and has a fondness for bourbon and the occasional swear word—things not generally found in your typical cozy mystery. As a result, I like to refer to my series as “snarky cozies.”
Since I, like Sally, can also tend towards the snarky, I do love to read this subgenre (the name of which I believe I am the first to employ), and dearly wish there were more of them being published!
Kass: Why crime fiction? What is the appeal of mysteries for you?
Leslie Karst: Having worked as a research and appellate attorney for twenty years, I’d say my brain must be wired for tasks that require an attention to detail. Any good mystery story requires the careful and painstaking placing of clues and red herrings, as well as a set of characters who would make for plausible suspects—a process that requires organization and the same sort of attention to detail that my legal career required. So when I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, a mystery novel seemed the obvious choice.
But I also love how crime novels tend to incorporate subplots that are woven into the mystery and which give the reader a glimpse into some new culture or way of life. (Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’ peeks into the worlds of London advertising, bell ringing, and academia.)
And since I’m an unabashed gourmet, I was of course drawn to the culinary mystery subgenre, where I’m able to indulge in my passion for food and cooking—the more delectably described the better.
What was your favorite book/author as a child? Why was it your favorite?
Leslie Karst: Okay, this may be super predictable but—like countless other girls who grew up in the 1960s—as a child, I was obsessed with all things horse. So the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley were my favorites, especially the first one, which gave its name to the series. I imagine most kids, at one time or another, have a Robinson Crusoe fantasy of being stranded on a desert island with no adults around, so what could be better than doing so with a gorgeous Arabian stallion as your helpmeet and companion?
Kass: I loved the Black Stallion books as well, and I’m still a little horse-crazy. Let’s talk a bit about your writing process. What do you find to be the most difficult part—first draft, editing, researching?
Leslie Karst: As a writer, I’m an absolute plotter (as opposed to a “pantser”). I first come up with a basic idea, next a group of three to five suspects (one of whom will be my eventual murderer), and then a series of plot points and events that will occur during the book. But the last step of organizing these plot points into an effective story arc is by far the most difficult part of the process for me.
With A Measure of Murder, the second in the Sally Solari series, I had compiled a multiple-page list of events and occurrences that I knew I wanted in the book, but which were in a completely random order. Unable to wrap my brain around how to transform them into a workable story line, I eventually printed out the list and cut the events apart with scissors, then spread them out across the dining room table. Over a period of several days I arranged and rearranged the order of events until I had a rough outline I was happy with. I then glued them back together onto new sheets of paper. A literal cut-and-paste job!
Kass: *smiling* Sometimes old-fashioned scissors and paste work best! In your latest story, what was your favorite (or hardest to write) scene?
Leslie Karst: There’s a dinner party that takes place midway through my latest book, Death al Fresco. It’s hosted by Sally at her home and her best friends—recurring characters in the series—are all there. I love this scene because it incorporates two of my favorite things to write—snappy dialogue and descriptions of food and cooking.
Sally and her pals are discussing the possible suspects in the case at the heart of the story, but as they exchange comments and jokes—each trying to outdo the others with their witticisms—they savor the luscious Black Cod with Miso and Sake that Sally has prepared (recipe in the book!), washed down by a citrusy Gewürztraminer.
The only problem is that I always find myself heading to the kitchen for a snack when I write these food scenes.
Kass: And now I want to do exactly that! Thanks so much for joining us today, Leslie.
And there you have it, folks, a delectable series of “snarky cozies” for your reading pleasure. Feel free to ask Leslie any questions you may have in the “comments” below.
And here’s her newest release:
Death al Fresco, book 3 in the Sally Solari mystery series:
It’s early autumn in Santa Cruz and restaurateur Sally Solari, inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, the artist for whom her restaurant is named, enrolls in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when Sally’s dog sniffs out a corpse entangled in a pile of kelp.
The body is identified as Gino, a local fisherman and a regular at Sally’s father’s restaurant, Solari’s, until he disappeared after dining there a few nights before. But after witnesses claim he left reeling drunk, fingers begin to point at Sally’s dad for negligently allowing the old man to walk home alone at night. From a long menu of suspects, including a cast of colorful characters who frequent the historic Santa Cruz fisherman’s wharf, Sally must serve up a tall order in order to clear her father’s name.
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