MURDER ON THE GRAVY TRAIN

By Phyllis Richman

HarperCollins. 243 pp. $23

Reviewed by Katy Munger

Witing mysteries is rapidly eclipsing being personally trained as the favorite hobby of the famous and quasi-famous. What you don't have in all of this name recognition-flogging is a lot of good mysteries. Fortunately for readers, Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman comes by her writing credentials honestly. Food is Richman's passion, writing her profession. Both qualities stamp her second novel, Murder on the Gravy Train, with a flavor all its own.

That's the good news. The bad news is a plot that sputters along like a Nova on a cold winter morning, never quite picking up speed. Nonetheless, there is much to be enjoyed in Gravy Train. The book is a contemporary cozy in which personal musings and social insights all take precedence over murder and larger issues such as justice. I suspect that the book will be most enjoyed by women who identify strongly with the heroine and aficionados of Washington's restaurant scene who will have fun guessing at Richman's inspiration. Anyone who has ever been cowed by a pushy waiter will take secret delight in imagining that a snooty restaurant owner somewhere in D.C. is quaking in his Guccis, afraid that people may recognize him in a character. Richman's sly digs at the sometimes silly pretensions of the haute cuisine scene are also a delight.

The book opens with our middle-aged, voluptuously overweight heroine, Chas Wheatley, meeting a real schlemiel for coffee. He's an architect she has contacted through the personal ads; to her dismay, he confesses he has fallen on hard times and is temporarily a waiter. To her greater dismay, he disappears in the middle of their date -- torpedoing Chas's self-esteem.

The incident sends her plunging back into her job as food critic at the fictional, D.C.-based Examiner as a way to salvage her self-worth. Soon she is hot on the trail of a juicy investigative story involving dishonest restaurateurs and the scams they pull on unsuspecting diners.

When seemingly unrelated deaths trace back to a common starting point, Chas realizes she is on to something big. It's a wonderful premise, and its failure to live up to its promise has more to do with the structure of the book than the author's writing talent. The story is told in first person, a narrative style seen more often in hard-boiled novels for a good reason -- the inner conflicts of nice people like Chas Wheatley are inherently less interesting than those of tortured loners seeking right in an unjust world. As a result, a lot is riding on Chas. She's curiously passive for a central character in a mystery. Her tendency to reanalyze scenarios slows the pacing to a crawl. Then there are the times when Chas is so slow to catch on that you want to beat her over the head with a stale baguette.

At other times Chas's insights are very moving. The trouble is that there are so many of them that what was originally illuminating eventually becomes annoying. It is not until page 147 that suspense is introduced and compelling sympathy created when a probably innocent man is accused of murder. That setup is a long time coming in a 243-page book, and it weakens the stakes of the outcome. Furthermore, what mystery plot there is often depends on implausible coincidence, questionable motivation and boneheaded moves by previously sensible characters.

Richman has a real flair for turning a phrase (an unctuous restaurant owner is "fourth-generation handsome") and for tweaking a description. How's this for evoking a sticky summer day in Washington: "The city was drowning and sweating and belching water." She can also employ non-cliched food metaphors better than anyone else I've ever read. But if, as I suspect, some misguided editor or friend told Richman to cut back on the food descriptions, then they should be condemned to a month's worth of lunches at Burger King. When Richman cuts loose doing what she does best -- evoking food as a metaphor for human passion, as a tool for ambition and as a setting for social jockeying -- the pages of Murder on the Gravy Train really begin to sing.

Katy Munger is the author of seven mysteries. Her latest is entitled "Money to Burn."