I’m not sure what it is about food and cooking that makes the subject such a popular one for mystery writers (and readers) but it’s probably the same factor that makes celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows so prevalent these days. The popularity of food-related entertainment doesn’t seem to have much to do with the general public’s love of cooking because, according to this article anyway, we’re cooking less and less for ourselves, but we sure seem to love watching and reading all about food, even when it’s killing people.
Probably the first mysteries I read that featured food in any memorable way were the Enid Blyton adventures of my childhood. I can’t imagine any of Blyton’s young detectives in the Famous Five or Secret Seven solving a single one of the puzzles that confronted them without the lashings of food at their midnight feasts and the packets of sandwiches and ginger buns that they always seemed to stuff into their pockets before heading off on their next adventure.
But food really came to the foreground when I went through my Nero Wolfe phase many years ago. While detecting his way through dozens of mysteries Rex Stout’s most famous character employs his own chef, Fritz, who prepares an endless array of gourmet meals for Wolfe, his sidekick Archie Goodwin and, often, guests to their New York brownstone. I’m guessing that Wolfe was the first fictional detective to generate his own cookbook (which also features fantastic photos of New York in the 1930′s and 40′s). It’s impossible to think of Nero Wolfe without imagining him mulling over a problem while breakfasting on Eggs Au Beurre Noir (from Over My Dead Body) or sitting down to an exotic supper of something like Trout Montbarry (from Immune to Murder). Early in his career (Too Many Cooks) Wolfe addresses a group of international master chefs on the topic of America’s contributions to haute cuisine but the event is soured by jealous fighting among the chefs and, ultimately, a death which Wolfe must investigate. Wolfe is inextricably linked with food in my mind.
I discovered the relatively modern phenomenon of ‘culinary cosies’ during one of my early trips to the US to visit my newly migrated brother (America has many wondrous things to offer the traveller but for me it was the range and quantity of bookstores that I fell most in love with during those pre-online shopping years). There are now dozens of cosy series that in some way relate to food and share features such as book titles that play on food-related words and a preponderance of dead bodies in kitchens but I’ll only mention the ones I’ve read and enjoyed:
- Dianne Mott Davidson’s series featuring newly single mum and caterer Goldy Schulz had its first book published, Catering to Nobody, in 1990. As well as the mouth-watering food (which I could make from the included recipes but never do) I’ve always liked this series because although it’s a cosy series the topic of domestic abuse and the fallout this can have on families is sensitively and realistically handled. It’s also nice to see a terrific female friendship depicted across the whole series between Goldy and her ex husband’s other ex-wife Marla.
- Jerrilyn Farmer’s series featuring caterer Madeline (Mad) Bean who puts on lavish feasts for the VIPs and glitterati of Los Angeles is always fun and my favourite of the seven books I’ve read is probably Immaculate Reception which sees Mad catering an event for 2000 people to welcome the Pope to the city. I was given the first book in this series because I share something slightly unusual with the main character and kept on reading the series because the books are full of interesting details about LA (a place I visit regularly) and the world of catering to the rich and famous (reading about it is as close as I’d ever want to get).
- Peter King writes a fun series that often combines food with travel as his protagonist, un-named man known as The Gourmet Detective, is hired to track down obscure ingredients and otherwise solve culinary mysteries around the world. In the first book in the series (also titled The Gourmet Detective) the protagonist is at a prestigious event when a TV journalist dies of poisoning (reading lots of these books does tent to make you want to hire your own personal food taster).
- Michael Bond, better known as the children’s author who created Paddington Bear, has a long-running farcical (sometimes downright surreal) series featuring a French food-inspector (and amateur detective) called Monsieur Pamplemousse. In my favourite of these books, Monsieur Pamplemousse Rests His Case a bunch of mystery writers are attempting to recreate a meal first served by Alexandre Dumas when things go horribly wrong.
- One of my recent food-related mysterious discoveries has been Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman novels which I’ve featured here and here. As well as Corinna’s job as baker and bread-maker for her little community in inner-city Melbourne there’s a core group of characters in the series who share an apartment building and they’re always cooking for each other and sharing large meals and good times. And the odd death or three of course. The books are light but I do enjoy them.
- I’ve also recently read and reviewed the second of Julie Hyzy’s series featuring the executive chef at America’s White House. It’s a perfect series for me as it combines food, political trivia and murder
However not all food-related crime is quite so cosy. In Robin Cook’s Toxin a doctor’s daughter dies due to E.coli bacteria in a fast food joint’s hamburger. In order to find out how his daughter could have been killed by something so seemingly innocuous the doctor gets a job at the factory which manufactured the burger patty that killed his child and finds some pretty disturbing facts about mass-produced food (I swear even the most ardent meat-eaters will at least consider vegetarianism after reading this).
Even Dick Francis recently got in on the act, setting his 2007 novel Dead Heat in and around a restaurant in one of the horse-racing towns that feature regularly in his books. The book’s protagonist Max Moreton is a chef whose popularity is on the rise until his restaurant is shut down due to a suspected food poisoning case and things go downhill for Moreton from that point on.
I’ve only highlighted a fraction of the food-related mysteries that have been published, so do you have a favourite that’s not on my list?
This post was prompted by the theme of an upcoming bookworms carnival, do visit the bookworms carnival blog and take a look at the array of interestingly themed carnivals to be found. Surely you’ll find something to tempt you with Rebellious Women or perhaps you’re looking for a new Comfort Read.