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Spring /Summer 2009

Gourmet novelist

Author Nadia Gordon stages her series of mystery tales in a fictionalized Napa Valley

By Peter Crooks

In the new novel Lethal Vintage, chef Sunny McCoskey is tossed into a murder mystery involving a billionaire, his mistress, and a cast of winemakers and foodies. Plus, McCoskey's restaurant just received an overabundant shipment of salmon that needs to sell that day. What's a chef (and amateur detective) to do?

Getting to the clever whodunit twist at the end of Lethal Vintage is just part of the fun in the delicious potboiler. Along the way, readers are treated to a virtual tour of Wine Country, with a flurry of references to real and fictional restaurants and wineries dropped into the quickly turning pages. This is the fourth book in the Napa Valley Mystery series by Nadia Gordon. Gordon is actually East Bay author Julianne Balmain, the scribe behind a number of successful books-including the humorous Office Kama Sutra guide. Balmain paired her foodie passions with her love of serial mysteries to create her Nadia Gordon alias for the McCoskey series. "As a kid, I was hooked on Perry Mason and Scooby-Doo. I've always loved Agatha Christie and P. D. James books," she says. "My Nadia Gordon books are intended to be like those kinds of classical mysteries, with a murder that's not too gruesome, set in a gourmet surrounding."

Balmain/Gordon's protagonist, Sunny McCoskey, was inspired by Lauren Lyle Olwell, former chef at Oakland's BayWolf restaurant. Balmain saw Olwell as both pragmatic and inventive, the kind of multitasker who could run a restaurant while solving crimes: "Lauren knows how to raise a chicken in the healthiest way, then chop off its head, cook, and eat it." McCoskey's fictional café, Wildside, has its own inspirations, from the East Bay's Gourmet Ghetto as well as Wine Country: "Wildside has much in common with the emphasis on local ingredients found at Chez Panisse," Balmain explains. "And, like Terra in St. Helena, Wildside strives for-and often achieves-a quiet perfection."

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