Elaine Turner – Garlic, Grapes and a Pinch of Heroin (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

Let’s take a moment to admire that title. Wow. I mean, if that doesn’t catch the eye, what will? Of course the cover is less appealing. It has all the ingredients of Gothic standard, but on an eighth-grade art class budget. Nevermind that the novel itself is 0% Gothic.

What we have here is a zany mystery with a little travel writing and a lot of absurdity. Most of the specifics are vague, confusing, too ridiculous to explain or all of the above. What I can say is that there is a brother and sister eager to escape their traumatic past via a guided tour through Spain. Previously, the brother got mixed up in dealing drugs. One day a deal goes wrong and the siblings’ father is killed. The brother blames the sister because she was screwing Lance—he’s either a secret agent or another drug dealer, I honestly never figured it out—when it all went down. Lance could have, somehow, prevented the murder if he hadn’t been so preoccupied.

The relaxing tour is going splendid until they discover a familiar face amongst the group. Lance! The bitter brother is furious. The sister is frustrated that her carefree getaway is ruined—but she also daydreams of reigniting sparks with her old lover. Could his appearance be a coincidence, romantic fate, or is something mysterious afoot?

When vacationers start to disappear, including her brother, the sister becomes nervous. Then there’s a close call with a motorcycle—attempted murder?—and ransacked hotel rooms. Lance finally fesses up that he’s there on assignment—again, either as a drug dealer or secret agent, I have no idea. He received a report that someone on the tour is carrying a suitcase full of heroin which he hopes to recover. Except he’s not alone. Some Turkish tough guys also appear to be after the drugs, and they’ll cut down anyone in their way. Will the tour survive, or will they all DIE? And who among them is hiding all that heroin?!

Ultimately the novel is about as cheesy as one would expect. It’s clear the author spent zero hours researching drug-related crime rings and probably has no idea what heroin even looks like. I haven’t found any information on Elaine Turner, but this appears to be her only novel. I suspect her inspiration came from an actual vacation. Somebody probably said, “wouldn’t this be a great setting for a novel!” and, bless her heart, she actually did the work to write one. And get it published! There’s very little to praise about the book, but you gotta admire her for making it happen.

There are plot holes galore, whiplash twists, pages and pages of talk about food, and a finale that will make you say WTF. But the biggest sin is the poor handling of genre expectations. Based on the cover and the first line—“Wisps of fog danced, slowly encircling the evergreens”—there’s an obvious appeal to Gothic readers. But the misty evergreens soon fade away to sunny Spain and, despite a lot of sight-seeing, the characters never travel to a hilltop castle.

Such “false advertisement” has long plagued the genre. It’s frustrating to pick up such filthy, lying books—but I do love that Gothic paperbacks must’ve been more marketable than mysteries in the 1970s. Why else would publishers go to such trouble to bamboozle?

Had I expected a murder mystery set on a vacation through Spain, I might have liked the book more. For all its flaws, the mystery element is impressively unpredictable and remains unresolved until the very last pages. Of course, part of why the resolution is so hard to guess is because it makes so little sense.

Back Cover

In the end, Garlic, Grapes and a Pinch of Heroin is a passable way to spend a few hours. As of this moment there are a small number of reasonably priced used copies. If this sounds like something you’d like to read, it may be worth hunting down. At least there would be the pleasure of owning a book with such a bonkers title.

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