BY: MARK SPIVAK
It’s 1990, and some critics believe that America’s most celebrated chef, Joseph Soderini di Avenzano, cut a deal with the Devil to achieve fame and fortune. Whether he is actually Bocuse or Beelzebub, Avenzano is approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of his glittering Palm Beach restaurant, Chateau de la Mer, patterned after the Michelin-starred palaces of Europe.
Journalist David Fox arrives in Palm Beach to interview the chef for a story on the restaurant’s silver jubilee and quickly becomes involved with Chateau de la Mer’s hostess, Alessandra, unwittingly transforming himself into Avenzano’s rival. When the chef invites David to winter in Florida and write his authorized biography, he gradually becomes sucked into the restaurant’s vortex—shipments of cocaine coming up from the Caribbean; the Mafia connections and unexplained murder of the chef’s original partner; and the chef’s ravenous ex-wives, swirling in the background like a hidden coven. As Alessandra plots the demise of the chef, David tries to sort out hallucination and reality, while Avenzano plays with him like a feline’s catnip-stuffed toy.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Friend of the Devil by Mark Spivak, David Fox is a free-lance journalist from New York, who takes an assignment to cover the twenty-fifth anniversary of a famous chef and his restaurant in Florida. The chef is reputed to have made a deal with the devil in exchange for fame and fortune as well as unsurpassed talent as a chef. David doesn’t know whether that is true or not, but things are definitely not what they seem. Is the chef possessed by the devil or is he just the personification of evil? Either way, David isn’t sure if he will get out of Florida alive.
The book has a solid, if complicated, plot, and nothing seems to go as you would expect. The writing is strong and the character development superb.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Friend of the Devil by Mark Spivak is the story of human greed and obsession. The greed plays out in the form of Joseph Soderini di Avenzano, the famous—or infamous—Florida chef who seemed to appear out of nowhere and soon climbed from obscurity to become the owner of a famous restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida, The obsession, however, isn’t about fame and fortune, but the need to discover the truth of things that might be better off staying hidden. David Fox, a New York journalist, takes what seems like an innocent assignment to travel to Florida and write an article on Joseph Soderini di Avenzano and his restaurant. But it doesn’t take David long to discover the chef is not what he appears to be. In fact, nothing is what it seems and David wants to know why. His quest for the truth takes him down forbidden paths where dark secrets, and even darker dangers, lurk.
While the plot is not new, Spivak gives it an unusual twist that is as chilling as it is appealing. With excellent, well-developed three-dimensional characters, an intriguing mystery, and dark humor, Spivak has crafted a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, turning pages until the end.
The man’s here.”
The old Black woman delivered her pronouncement into the darkness of a back room—half in amusement, half in disgust. She then walked back across the front room of the cabin, her feet creaking on the wooden floor, to the place where the young man sat. A pot-bellied stove, streaked with soot, crackled in the opposite corner.
“He be wit you in a minute.”
The white youth seemed strangely comfortable in this shack outside Clarksdale in rural Mississippi. The year was 1947, at the height of Jim Crow, at a time when the races never mingled.
The young man had concocted an elaborate cover story and, with the confidence of his age, he believed he could explain himself if the wrong people found him here.
“What you say your name is?” the woman asked.
The woman laughed. “You a crazy-assed white boy, Joseph.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied in a deep baritone, guttural and booming. “That may well be.”
The old Black man shuffled out of the back room, moving slowly and deliberately. He was clad in overalls, and his silver hair framed a deeply lined and creased face. He glanced at Joseph and shook his head.
“Let’s go out on the porch, boy.”
They walked outside to the dilapidated wooden deck surrounding the front of the shack, and the old man settled in a rocking chair. He motioned for Joseph to sit beside him and regarded him with the same amusement his wife had displayed.
“You a long way from home, ain’t you?”
“I don’t really have a home, sir.”
“Everybody got a home.” The old man chuckled. “Some folks just don’t know where it is.”
“Maybe so.” Joseph shifted in his chair as he listened to the night sounds coming from the distance: crickets, the far-off howl of wolves, wind rustling the trees. Highway 61 and Highway 49 were out there, intersecting at the Crossroads. “So tell me, did you know Robert Johnson?”
“Heard him sing once or twice, but that was a long time ago.”
“What was he like?”
“Crazy-assed, like you.” The old man chuckled again. “Knew his time was short, and couldn’t be bothered.”
“Played the gittar pretty good. But it was that voice.” The old man paused. “It stuck witchoo. Couldn’t git it outta your head. It wasn’t pretty.” He shook his head. “Naw. Wasn’t pretty. Not at all.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
Joseph had heard the voice, listening to scratchy old records on a friend’s Victrola. They were the only known recordings of Robert Johnson, the studio sessions done a few years before his death. The old man was right. The voice was plaintive and haunting, something you would always remember once you heard it. “That must have been amazing—hearing him in person.”
“Wasn’t no fun, to tell you true. After the first couple times, I never went back.” He shook his head again. “Seems to me that life is hard enough sometimes without lookin’ for his kinda problems.”
The old man looked at Joseph closely. “What you need that kinda trouble for, boy?”
“I want to be a success. I want to leave my mark on the world.”
“Where’s your gittar?”
“I don’t play, sir. That’s not what this is about. I want to be somebody.” Joseph paused. “I’m not sure what I want to do. I’ve done some kitchen work, and I like it. I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll open a restaurant someday.”
“Shoot!” The old man exploded in laughter. “You want to open a restaurant, boy, you don’t need to be goin’ out there in the dead of night, lookin’ for trouble. Just fry yourself up a mess of chicken and be done with it.”
“Sure,” said Joseph, laughing in spite of himself.
There was a long silence, and the old man looked at him expectantly. Joseph reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small manila envelope, and handed it over.
“Well, I’ll be,” the old man said as he counted the money. His eyes widened and his eyebrows arched. “There’s four hunnerd here. I done told you two hunnerd.”
“I want you to have it. I think it’s fair.”
“That’s a lot of money, boy. You don’t need to be doin’ that.”
“I’m not here as a tourist, sir.” It was Joseph’s turn to stare at the old man. “It took me a long time to find you. I don’t want the movie set or the amusement park. I want the real thing.”
“Careful what you wish for, now.”
“Will you be going out with me?”
“Shoot, no.” The old man shook his head. “These old legs couldn’t take me out there and back. And you wouldn’t want me, anyway. You don’t want some old man who got spooked at the sound of Johnson’s voice. It’s my son that’s goin’ with you.”
“Are you sure?”
“It got to be him, ’cause it got to be somebody who don’t take this stuff seriously. Somebody who ain’t gonna wake up in the middle of the night thirty years from now, thinkin’ ’bout it.” He reached over and patted Joseph on the shoulder. “Gotta be somebody with a pure heart. Somebody the man can’t touch.”
“I’ll git him for you.” The man paused and looked at Joseph. “You know, Johnson was no more than thirty when he died.”
“He was twenty-seven, actually.”
“How old you be?”
“I just turned twenty-two.”
“And that don’t spook you none?”
“You know what you should be spooked ’bout? If you had any sense, that is?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“How you gonna feel if you live to be as old as me? What you think gonna be in your head then?”
“I guess I’ll have to take that chance.”
“It’s your funeral either way, I ’spose.” He rose unsteadily and walked to the edge of the porch. “Willy,” he called. “William Earl, you git out here. It be showtime.”
After a moment, a young Black man emerged from behind the shack, grinning broadly. He wore overalls like his father and radiated an aura of good humor that put Joseph immediately at ease. He looked no older than Joseph, but seemed to engulf everyone around him in boyish enthusiasm.
“You wanna open yourself a restaurant,” the old man told Joseph, “this here is the boy you want. He can cook up anythin’, anytime, just the way you like it. He’ll make you a success.” He turned to his son. “You ready, boy?”
“Yes, sir, born ready.”
“All right then. You be careful out there.” He looked carefully at Joseph. “Good luck to you. I hope you git what you came for.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Let’s go, baby.” Willy grinned, motioning for Joseph to follow him. “We got business.”
© 2016 Mark Spivak
“Mark Spivak, author of Friend of the Devil (Black Opal Books) instantly proves to hungry skeptics that it Is possible for a journalist to cook, eat, drink fine wine and write at the same time. In Spivak’s first novel, his hero-alter ego and lead character David Fox, a New York newsman and freelance writer, proves himself to be brave, trustworthy, tough and creative. How can any reader resist a character with those credentials?
Spivak, a onetime wine writer for the Palm Beach Post, has written several non-fiction books with culinary or fermented themes. For his first fiction foray, principal character Fox is introduced in the 1990s, after the yarn jumps locales or entire generations and eras. This split-screen back and forth writing approach is used to advance the age old conflict between good and evil. Characters have their past peeled away, old homicides are revisited decades later–such as kidnapping by a mobster on a mission begun ages before– family secrets revealed – often over drugs, a dish of good pasta, and a glass of Grey Riesling.
In Friend of the Devil eating during a job interview is not a distraction, it is encouraged. Scotch scones even appear on the literary plate at one point—seasoning an otherwise Sicilian crime and food menu. Fox has a passion for both food and females as he tries to avoid both bodily and psychological pain. There is magnetism and mystery in this culinary complexity. Even readers who prefer a more bland diet may be drawn to the debates and shadows in Friend of the Devil. There’s nothing like a spicy tale to entertain and fulfill.” ~ Jack L. Kennedy, Joplin Independent READ FULL REVIEW