Finding Florence is a page-turner about a missing heiress and a family secret, but it’s far from a traditional detective yarn. Beneath the clues, threats, and hidden journals, it’s also a warmhearted story about the ties between two “frenemy” chefs who stop every few pages to map out unusual recipes. (This is actually the third in the “Irene in Chicago Culinary Mystery” series by veteran author Judy Alter, but you don’t need to read the first two books to enjoy this one.)
When aspiring chef Henny James sees a death notice in the local newspaper regarding Florence Sherman, the cranky, aging heiress of a historic Chicago family, she knows immediately that, as the first sentence of the novel announces, “Irene Foxglove is coming back to Chicago from France.” That’s because Irene—Henny’s mentor—was Florence’s best friend when Irene lived in Chicago.
Sure enough, Irene arrives in town the next morning. However, almost nothing that follows is predictable.
For one thing, there’s no funeral, no memorial service, and no cause of death. Florence’s milquetoast daughter, Alice, shuts herself off in her apartment, while her domineering husband, Richard, keeps running off to “winterize” the family’s property in rural Wisconsin.
Matters only grow more mysterious with the sudden appearance of a college librarian who ostensibly wants to hire Henny to cater his upcoming wedding, but really seems much more interested in Florence’s family history. On top of that, the museum devoted to that history has been feuding with Florence.
Irene demands that Henny drop everything to help her investigate Florence’s situation, brushing aside Henny’s protests that she needs to tape her TV cooking show, which is at risk of being canceled. Ratcheting up the (unspoken) rivalry between the two chefs, Henny’s boss decides to stage a live cook-off between Irene (classic French cuisine) and Henny (down-home Texas food).
And there’s still no information about Florence.
One of the pleasures of this book is the range of colorful, original characters. For instance, Irene’s partner, Chance Charpentier, is a wealthy, suave, French businessman who’s built like a linebacker and prefers beer to wine. Irene may be demanding, tart, and too refined for dog hairs on the sofa, but she listens to her invisible “voices.”
The language is easygoing, the pace fast-moving, and the mystery satisfyingly mysterious. My main criticism is that, even for a foodie, there’s too much food. Sometimes a dish is subtly incorporated into the plot as a way of revealing aspects of a personality or relationship—and in such cases, the ingredients are perfectly blended. But after lush descriptions of five different meals within 12 pages, well, a reader might get indigestion. (Besides, the full recipes for many of these dishes are provided at the back of the book, so there’s no need to put them in the narrative.)
Still, it’s a fun read overall. I definitely want seconds.