News & Politics

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham?

Former Post restaurant critic no Raymond Chandler, but pleases “if you savor mysteries heavy on dialogue and relationships.”

 Ringo Laurenge, a new reporter at the fictional Washington Examiner, comes off as a blowhard jackass right from the second page of this mystery, when he attributes St. Mary's County stuffed ham to the commonwealth of Virginia. The author—the Washington Post's former restaurant reviewer—gradually ascribes far worse to her novel's weasely villain as he insinuates himself into the lives of his colleagues and the city.

 You know from the start that Ringo's going to get it. The question is from whom—and, later, how? Will it be the entrepreneurs he nearly put out of business on a whim? The theater critic he assaulted? Her lover, the police detective? Or Phyllis herself—I mean Chas Wheatley, the restaurant-critic protagonist, whose story ideas Ringo keeps stealing?

 The local name-dropping is fun, and you may be surprised to read Richman's descriptions of how restaurateurs figure out what to charge customers. Even she gets a few of her Washington facts wrong, though, and throws in a few ludicrous suppositions—that accidental food poisoning of a senator's wife would make national news, that a guy in town only months would rate a whole section of newsprint upon his death.

 The plot develops slowly; the evil Ringo doesn't keel over until close to the end, and the solution feels anticlimactic. If you like Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard, stick with the first half of the bookstore alphabet. But if you savor mysteries heavy on dialogue and relationships, you should enjoy this one.

Phyllis Richman