BOOK REVIEW / Best buddies investigate: What men say - Joan Smith: Chatto, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
JOAN SMITH is something of a sheep in wolf's clothing. On the surface this novel may look like a feminist detective story abounding in fashionably ironic, self-referential, post-modernist flourishes, but don't be fooled: at heart it is a deft, old-fashioned whodunnit.

Despite its title, the women do most of the talking here - the heroines being a pair of voluble Oxford academics in their late thirties. Loretta and Bridget are best buddies through thick and thin: the literary equivalent of Thelma and Louise. Like their film counterparts, they hang out in bars and pick up men from time to time, but their conversation is all of higher things: whether Byron or Shelley was the true model for Frankenstein, for example; or the depiction of violence in the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. The harmony of their friendship is threatened only once in this highly eventful novel, rife with deception, betrayal and concealment, and that is when Bridget proposes to give her unborn child her husband's surname. Loretta is indignant, baffled by this slight upon her gender.

Bridget has recently married a handsome American named Sam. In time-honoured best friend tradition, Loretta takes against her pal's spouse, and if this is not indication enough of his true character the perceptive reader will surely smell a rat after learning how he makes breakfast. This is a man who rises at first light to go out to the most expensive French patisserie for fresh almond croissants; who adorns the table with crisp linen and delicately scented flowers; who squeezes oranges and cuts up grapefruits; who prepares lashings of hot, fragrant coffee. Such apparent perfection has to signify that there is something wrong if not downright sinister about him. But when, in chapter one, a decomposing female corpse is uncovered in Sam and Bridget's barn, his alibi seems unshakeable, his motive entirely absent.

This sense of ordinary lives caught up in tragedy gives the story its urgency, while a beady-eyed humour and a flair for dialogue bring it real panache. Joan Smith evidently likes food, and she is one of those rare writers - Iris Murdoch is another - who can use cooking and eating as a way of revealing much about her characters. Like her literary sense, her culinary one is an auspicious combination of the old and the new: kedgeree on one page; fresh black pasta made with squid-ink on another. Some readers may jib at the relentless political correctness of What Men Say - the Guardian, for instance, gets a staggering 20 mentions - but this minor irritation does nothing to detract from what is essentially a ripping good read.