A Bitter Feast features a large cast of characters.

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a murder mystery, imagine trying to create something like A Bitter Feast, Deborah Crombie’s eighteenth entry in the Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid series. Forget the plot. Just consider the large cast of characters.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

An epically large cast of characters

  • For starters there are Gemma James, Duncan Kincaid, and Kit, the oldest of their three children, who’s fifteen.
  • Add Doug Cullen, Duncan’s sergeant at the Met.
  • Then there’s the family they’re visiting in the Cotswolds, Sir Ivan and Lady Adelaide (Addie) Talbot and their daughter, Melody Talbot, who is Gemma’s sergeant at the Met.
  • At the Talbots’s eight-bedroom “cottage,” Beck House, Lady Adelaide has a secretary, Rosalind (Roz) Dunning, and a gardener named Joe.

A Bitter Feast (Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid #18) by Deborah Crombie (2019) 384 pages ★★★★☆

You might think that’s the end of it. But no. There’s more.

  • Now, most of the action revolves around the nearby village pub, where Viv Holland is the talented chef.
  • The pub’s staff also includes Bea Abbott, Viv’s partner and manager, and Ibby Azoulay, one of the two cooks who join Viv in the kitchen, as well as Jack Doyle, the bar manager.
  • Then there’s Nell Greene, Viv’s friend, and Mark Cain, her neighbor and lover.
  • Viv’s eleven-year-old daughter, Grace, plays a major role, too.
  • Now add Detective Inspector Colin Booth, who comes on the scene once bad things start happening.

I may have forgotten someone, but I think those seventeen are the principals. And Crombie tells the story through the point of view of every single one of these people! The only major characters whose minds we never invade are Fergus O’Reilly, the celebrity chef from London, since he turns up dead rather quickly; restaurateur Colm Finlay, Fergus’s former partner, who’s on stage only briefly; Andy Monahan, Melody’s rock star boyfriend, who makes a cameo appearance; and Gemma and Duncan’s two younger children, Toby and Charlotte. It’s truly hard to imagine how Crombie could possibly have kept straight all the interrelations among this horde of personalities — and what they were thinking at every moment along the way. It’s like three-dimensional chess, and I confess I would not be up to the task.

For the most part, I avoid whodunnits. And A Bitter Feast is most assuredly a whodunnit. However, I make an exception for Crombie because she does such a great job describing the family dynamics involving Gemma, Duncan, and their children. Of course, she’s also adept at the sine qua non of mystery novels, building suspense. But, as I’ve noted above, it’s more to the point here that she is adroit in the extreme in handling a large cast of characters. The result is that this novel, as so many of her others, comes across as something resembling real life.

I’ve been reading Deborah Crombie’s novels for many years. The other books I’ve reviewed recently include:

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