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You'll savor the off-beat mysteries served up by 'The Kamogawa Food Detectives'

Penguin Random House

For me, it's a sip of blackberry brandy, the bargain bin kind that my mother kept in the back of a kitchen cabinet. She would dole out a spoonful to me if I had a cold. The very words "blackberry brandy" still summon up the sense of being cared for: a day home from school, nestled under a wool blanket on the couch, watching reruns of I Love Lucy. That spoonful of brandy is my Proust's madeleine in fermented form.

In The Kamogawa Food Detectives, by Hisashi Kashiwai, clients seek out the Kamogawa Diner because their elusive memories can't be accessed by something as simple as a bottle of rail liquor. Most find their way to the unmarked restaurant on a narrow backstreet in Kyoto, Japan, because of a tantalizing ad in a food magazine.

The ad cryptically states: "Kamogawa Diner – Kamogawa Detective Agency- We Find Your Food." Entering through a sliding aluminum door, intrepid clients are greeted by the chef, Nagare, a retired, widowed police detective and Koishi, his sassy 30-something daughter who conducts interviews and helps cook.

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In traditional mystery stories, food and drink are often agents of destruction: Think, for instance, of Agatha Christie and her voluminous menu of exotic poisons. But, at the Kamogawa Diner, carefully researched and reconstructed meals are the solutions, the keys to unlocking mysteries of memory and regret.

The Kamogowa Food Detectives is an off-beat bestselling Japanese mystery series that began appearing in 2013; now, the series is being published in this country, translated into English by Jesse Kirkwood. The first novel, called The Kamogowa Food Detectives, is composed of interrelated stories with plots as ritualistic as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes: In every story, a client enters the restaurant, describes a significant-but-hazily-remembered meal. And, after hearing their stories, Nagare, the crack investigator, goes to work.

Maybe he'll track down the long-shuttered restaurant that originally served the remembered dish and the sources of its ingredients; sometimes, he'll even identify the water the food was cooked in. One client says he wants to savor the udon cooked by his late wife just one more time before he remarries; another wants to eat the mackerel sushi that soothed him as a lonely child.

But the after effects of these memory meals are never predictable. As in conventional talk-therapy, what we might call here the "taste therapy" that the Kamogawa Food Detectives practice sometimes forces clients to swallow bitter truths about the past.

In the stand-out story called "Beef Stew," for instance, an older woman comes in hoping to once again taste a particular beef stew she ate only once in 1957, at a restaurant in Kyoto. She dined in the company of a fellow student, a young man whose name she can't quite recall, but she does know that the young man impetuously proposed to her and that she ran out of the restaurant. She tells Koishi that: "Of course, it's not like I can give him an answer after all these years, but I do find myself wondering what my life would have been like if I'd stayed in that restaurant and finished my meal."

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Nagare eventually manages to recreate that lost beef stew, but some meals, like this one, stir up appetites that can never be sated.

As a literary meal The Kamogawa Food Detectives is off-beat and charming, but it also contains more complexity of flavor than you might expect: Nagare sometimes tinkers with those precious lost recipes, especially when they keep clients trapped in false memories. Nagare's Holmes-like superpowers as an investigator are also a strong draw. Given the faintest of clues — the mention of a long-ago restaurant with an open kitchen, an acidic, "[a]lmost lemony" taste to a mysterious dish of longed for yellow rice, some Bonito flakes — Nagare recreates and feeds his clients the meals they're starving for, even as he releases others from the thrall of meals past.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.