The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned at a young age, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California.
Originally from Southern California, Leslie moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs) and after graduation, parlayed her degree in English literature into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock and roll band. Exciting though this life was, she eventually decided she was ready for a “real” job, and ended up at Stanford Law School.
For the next twenty years Leslie worked as the research and appellate attorney for Santa Cruz’s largest civil law firm. During this time, she rediscovered a passion for food and cooking, and so once more returned to school to earn a degree in culinary arts.
Now retired from the law, she spends her time cooking, gardening, cycling, singing alto in her local community chorus, reading, and of course writing. Leslie and her wife and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai‘i.
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about A MEASURE OF MURDER, and what compelled you to write it.
Leslie Karst: Although my Sally Solari mysteries focus on food, cooking, and restaurants, there’s a secondary theme to each of the books in the series: one of the human senses. Dying for a Taste concerns (obviously) the sense of taste, and A Measure of Murder delves into the sense of hearing—more specifically, music.
Music has long been one of my passions. I studied clarinet as a youngster, later fronted and wrote the songs for two different bands, and for the past seventeen years have sung alto in my local community chorus. So when it came time to plot the story about the sense of hearing, there was no question but that it should focus on music.
As with Sally, one of my favorite compositions is the sublime Mozart Requiem. But in addition, the piece is perfect for a mystery novel, as the Requiem itself is surrounded by secrets and mystery: who commissioned it, who completed it after Mozart died, which parts were composed by whom. So, truly, how could I resist?
M.C.: What is your book about?
L.K.: In this second book, A Measure of Murder, Sally Solari is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. Complicating this already hectic schedule, she joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition: the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard—and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident.
Now Sally’s back on another murder case seasoned with a dash of revenge, a pinch of peril, and a suspicious stack of sheet music. And while tensions in the chorus heat up, so does the kitchen at Gauguin—set aflame right as Sally starts getting too close to the truth.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in A MEASURE OF MURDER?
L.K.: As noted above, the sense of hearing plays an important part in the story, with Sally not only joining the chorus to sing the Mozart Requiem, but also along the way learning the importance of truly listening in general—listening to your inner feelings, and paying attention to what’s going on around you.
The book also explores the themes of family and the food movement, and how the two create a conflict between Sally and her father. The Solaris are descended from one of the original Italian fishermen who arrived in Santa Cruz in the late 1800s, and Sally’s dad is fiercely proud of the family’s traditional, old-school Italian seafood restaurant out on the Santa Cruz Wharf. But Sally is also very much aligned with the food-conscious folks who have arrived in town over the past two decades—even more so now, after inheriting her aunt’s trendy restaurant, Gauguin.
The dynamic between Sally and her father—who is hurt that his daughter no longer wants to work at Solari’s, and who thinks she now looks down on her family heritage—is very much at the forefront of the story in A Measure of Murder.
M.C.: Why do you write?
L.K.: I’ve been fascinated with language and grammar from a young age. Being the daughter of an academic who took sabbatical leave every few years, I was fortunate to live in a variety of different cultures as a youngster, and I think spending time in non-English speaking countries triggered my life-long passion for language. There are few activities I enjoy more than playing around with sentences, getting the words and syntax just right. And when you get down to it at a nuts and bolts level, this is pretty much what writing is all about.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
L.K.: In the middle of the night I sometimes get what, at the time, seem like the most fabulous ideas. I’m always sure I’ll remember them, and then wake the next morning with only the vaguest recollection of what had struck me as so brilliant at two a.m. But when I do remember, I usually realize the idea is in fact completely ridiculous or inane.
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
L.K.: I try to keep the language in my books fun and accessible, but I’m a stickler for grammar—except in dialogue. Because people don’t really say “It is I.” (Okay, I actually do sometimes say that, but it tends to elicit strange looks.) For me, writing dialogue is where I truly get to be creative, crafting language that most colorfully brings my cast of varied characters to life.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
L.K.: When I’m plotting and outlining I do sometimes get flashes of ideas that seem to emanate from the ether (though I wish that happened more often than it does). And when I’m writing the story, the characters sometimes seem to shove me aside and say, “No! I would never do that. I need to do this, instead!” Which is kind of freaky, actually, but I’ve learned it’s generally best to let them have their say.
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
L.K.: If I have wine with lunch, it’s useless to try to write in the afternoon. I’m way too sleepy, and what I think is brilliant at the time usually turns out to be far less interesting once the wine has worn off.
M.C.: Your best?
L.K.: I generally get the most writing done in the first part of the day, after I’ve checked my email and social media pages, read the newspaper, and finally sit down at my desk with a strong cup of Joe.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
L.K: Probably not, short of being run over by a Mack truck and rendered permanently unconscious.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
L.K.: That’s a hard question, because there have been many wonderful moments. But the one that immediately springs to mind is the book release event I recently had for A Measure of Murder at my local bookstore, Bookshop Santa Cruz. Because the story concerns the Mozart Requiem, I asked a few members of the Cabrillo Chorus, with whom I sometimes sing, if they’d be willing to perform one of the movements from the piece at the event. I figured I’d be lucky if nine or ten singers showed up.
That night, after giving a short talk and then reading a passage from the book, I invited the chorus members to come forward to sing the “Lacrymosa.” The shock that swept over me when some thirty people stood up from their seats was profound. And as I listened to them sing their hearts out while I conducted the piece, I was moved to tears.
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
L.K.: Well, I have felt a compulsion to write from a young age, when I penned a story about some dogs and cats making a cross-country trip to return to their home (a blatant rehash of The Incredible Journey, which Disney movie I’d recently seen). Then in college, I started writing poetry, later moving on to to rock ’n roll songs. And I did have a career as a research attorney. drafting memos, legal briefs, and appeals. So I guess writing might just be an obsession for me.
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
L.K.: Very much so. Like my sleuth, I am an ex-lawyer who is obsessed with food, loves dogs, bourbon, and cycling, and lives in the beautiful beach town of Santa Cruz, California. However, unlike Sally, I am not, alas, tall and thin, or Italian, nor do I drive a ’57 T-Bird. And I would be absolutely terrified if I ever came across a dead body.
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Do you agree?
L.K.: No. My novels incorporate a blend of fiction and reality, and it’s the reality aspect that gives them relevance to our time. For instance, one of the themes running through the Sally Solari mysteries concerns the modern food movement, and its juxtaposition with the old-fashioned Italian culture in which Sally was raised. I believe that even the most exotic, other-worldly fantasy stories appeal to us largely because of how they reflect on the reality in which we live.
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?