Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We Gather Together...

Gathering for meals seems to be a cultural universal. Sharing a meal binds people together in a unique way, and allows all kinds of personal interactions that aren’t possible in other contexts. We can all identify with cooking, serving, eating and sharing food, so it’s no wonder that meals are such common contexts in crime fiction. And the American holiday of Thanksgiving seems a perfect time to look at the way mystery novels use that context. After all, it’s a time when we Americans get together for a meal and reflect on how fortunate we are to be able to do so. Of course, with crime fiction, one knows that things aren’t always as they seem, and meals aren’t always warm and friendly occasions….

Some crime fiction series are centered on cooking and eating. There are several cozy series that fall into this category; one example is Joanne Fluke’s series. Fluke’s sleuth is Hannah Swensen, who once aspired to be a teacher of literature. When her father died, Hannah left McAlester College and returned to her native Lake Eden, Minnesota, to help her mother. Now she runs The Cookie Jar, Lake Eden’s most popular bakery. She also gets involved in several cases of murder, all of them related to cooking and baking. Isis Crawford’s mystery series also focuses on cooking, serving and eating. Her sleuths are Bernie and Libby Simmons, sisters who own and run a bake shop/catering service in Longely, New York, called A Little Taste of Heaven. Their father, Sean Simmons, who lives with them, is a retired police officer. Besides the mysteries themselves, Crawford's novels also include recipes at the end of each story. Nancy Fairbanks’ Carolyn Blue series is also all about food. Carolyn Blue is a former homemaker who’s become a food writer/critic. She’s married to Professor Jason Blue, who’s a scientist and expert in toxins. What with Jason’s conferences and other travels, and Carolyn’s own growing reputation as a food writer, the two get involved in many different mysteries. What’s interesting about this series is that the setting changes from story to story, so the reader gets a sense of the cuisine from different areas.

Some mystery novels, although they’re not centered on food, use a meal as the context for a murder. Agatha Christie does that in Sad Cypress. In that novel Elinor Carlisle is visiting Hunterbury, the home of her late Aunt Laura Welman, to go through her aunt’s things and prepare the home for its new owners. At lunchtime one day, she prepares a meal of sandwiches, and invites Mary Gerrard, her aunt’s protégée, and Jessie Hopkins, the local District Nurse who attended her aunt, to join her. Shortly afterwards, Mary dies, and her death is put down to poisoning. Elinor is charged with Mary’s murder, and Hercule Poirot is called in to clear her name if he can.

Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison also features a murderous meal. Novelist Phillip Boyes has convinced his girlfriend, Harriet Vane, to move in with him, although she’s uncomfortable with the idea of living with a man without marriage. He proposes marriage a year later, and this infuriates Harriet, who feels that her reputation has been ruined for no reason. One evening, Boyes has dinner with his cousin, attorney Norman Urquhart. Later, he visits Harriet in hopes of a reconciliation; while he’s there, Harriet serves him a cup of coffee. A few days later, Boyes dies of complications from arsenical poisoning, and Harriet is charged with his murder. Lord Peter Wimsey attends Harriet’s trial and becomes smitten with her. When the jury can't reach a verdict, Harriet is given another trial date and Wimsey commits himself to clearing her of the charges against her. He then sets out to prove that someone else poisoned Boyes, even though everything Boyes ate on that last fateful day was also eaten by someone else.

In Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer, there’s another example of a meal that ends in death. In this case, the meal is arranged to celebrate the 65th birthday of Sir Oliver Farleigh-Stubbs, a successful and thoroughly obnoxious writer of detective stories. Farleigh-Stubbs has alienated everyone in his life, especially the members of his family and his neighbors. So it’s not a real surprise to the reader when he slumps over, dead, during the meal. At first, the death is supposed to be from natural causes; Sir Oliver is in bad health and obese. Soon, though, it’s discovered that he died of nicotine poisoning. Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate, and he has no lack of suspects.

The same is true in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Scone Cold Dead, the second of her Liss Maccrimmon mysteries. Maccrimmon, a former Scottish dancer, has had to retire because of an injury. She now runs a dance school in her hometown in rural Maine. When she finds out that her former dance troupe is going on tour, she arranges for the group to make a stop at her hometown, and plans a party featuring special Scottish foods. During the meal, Victor Owens, manager of the troupe, suddenly dies. It’s later found that he died of anaphylaxis brought on by a scone filled with mushrooms, to which he’s violently allergic.There are plenty of people who wanted Owens dead; he was overbearing, offensive and sexually harassed more than one member of the troupe. But, since Liss was involved in making the scones, she’s suspected of the murder, and has to find out who the real killer is before she herself is arrested.

Even when poisoned food isn’t the murder weapon, mystery authors sometimes use meals to build suspense or give clues. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Mr. Shaitana, a very eccentric man, meets Hercule Poirot at a charity event. He falls into conversation with Poirot about his habit of collecting, and offers to show Poirot his most interesting collection: a group of murderers who’ve never been caught. Poirot demurs, but Shaitana insists, and plans a dinner party to which he invites Poirot. On the evening of the dinner, Poirot arrives to find that he’s one of four sleuths whom Shaitana’s invited. The other four guests are people who, it turns out, have all killed before. During the dinner, Shaitana turns the conversation to murder and different ways of committing it, and the suspense builds as he throws out hints about the guests. Later that night, Shiatana is murdered. There are only four suspects, and each of them could have committed the murder, so Poirot has to use what he knows of psychology to look into each suspect’s background and find out who killed Shaitana.

There’s an equally suspenseful dinner in Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). In that novel, wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade has died in a bomb blast. Since he died intestate, his money passes to his very young widow, Rosaleen. The other members of Cloade’s family, his two brothers and their wives, his widowed sister, his niece and his nephew, have always been led to believe that they’d be well provided for, so resentment flares when Rosaleen and her brother, David Hunter, are invited to one of the Cloade’s homes for a “meet the family” dinner. The meal itself isn’t the center of the novel, but it’s overlaid with suspense and tension.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces, the wealthier residents of Crozet, Virginia hold a traditional fox hunt. During the hunt, the Huntsman finds the body of Ben Seifert, branch manager of the local bank. At the end of the hunt, there’s a hunt breakfast to which everyone involved with the hunt’s been invited. In spite of the shocking news about Seifert, everyone comes to the breakfast and Brown uses this meal to give the reader clues about who might have killed Seifert and why. Again, the hunt breakfast itself isn’t central to the plot, but it does give the reader some clues.

Even when a mystery novelist doesn’t specifically use a meal to build suspense or to give clues, meals and food are a critical part of crime fiction. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, is a gourmand who enjoys searching out new and delicious meals. He takes his stomach very seriously, and good meals are woven throughout the novels that feature him. Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series is very similar in that way; delectable food is an integral part of those novels.

Food is an essential in our lives, and meals are interwoven into much of what we do, so it makes sense that they should also be a part of crime fiction. Do you find that culinary art enhances a novel for you? Does it detract from the plot?

On Another Note…

On this American holiday of Thanksgiving, I would like to sincerely thank all of you in the crime fiction and writing community who’ve welcomed me so warmly into your group. Your posts and comments broaden my horizons, teach me much, and lift me up. I am grateful to each of you. To my American friends, Happy Thanksgiving. To those of you who live elsewhere, best wishes and again, my thanks.


  1. As a reader I adore mysteries that have a strong focus on the food prepared and consumed by the characters. I can never relate, however, to the protagonists who, when they sit down to a fabulous meal, are too pre-occupied or worried to eat a bite. They always toy with their food. As if... :-)
    I am grateful to you for giving me a great list, above, of books to read. I am also thankful for having found someone who delivers a classical education in crime fiction, every day. Happy Thanksgiving, Margo - and everyone south of the 39th Parallel! I hope it's a wonderful day for you.

  2. Bobbi - Thank you so much for the kind words : ). It's so nice of you to take the time to "say" them. Thanks, too, for the holiday wishes.

    It's funny you would mention that about people being too pre-occupied to eat. I've read so many mysteries where characters push their food around on their plates, etc... On one hand, it builds the suspense, which is always helpful to a good mystery. It also lets the reader know how upset/nervous, etc., the character is. On the other hand, lots of people don't identify with that. Interesting thing to think about...

  3. You know, I always love big dinner scenes in mysteries. It's just fun to have a large group of characters together sharing a meal--and then killing one of them!

    Have a really Happy Thanksgiving, Margot! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Oh, you're so right! Those scenes that include a big meal allow for so many different kinds of interactions, dialogue, etc.. It is fun to get caught up in that and then follow the action when one of the characters falls over. There's something to be said for writing a scene like that, too : ).

    I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  5. Big dinner scenes in mysteries are fun; who sits next to whom; who eats too much, who drinks too! It's also a great opportunity to let the reader experience the book's setting through the menu. Of course, in mysteries, it's always possible that there's an added nasty ingredient and someone isn't going to be getting up from the table!

    Family dinners are great because of the dynamic. Dinner parties can also be fun as some guests know each other and some don't. Who talks too much? Who's shy? Who's worried about which fork to use? All wonderful ways to explore characters' personalities and quirks.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Margot; I'm so thankful I've gotten to know you and I look forward to knowing you much better in the months ahead!


  6. Elspeth - Thanks for the kind words : ). I'm better for having gotten to know you, and I, too, look forward to our continuing friendship.

    You make such an interesting point, too; a meal is more than an opportunity to raise the suspense and tension. It's also an opportunity to let readers get to know the characters. As you say, when we can see how the characters behave and what they do, we get a window on their personalities. Your post makes me think of Agatha Christie's The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). There's an interesting dinner scene there where we get to see how all of the disparate characters behave towards each other and what they talk about. For instance, one of them's so uncomfortable that he does little but mumble and crumble his bread. Meals really are good ways to "meet" characters.

  7. Christie's Sparkling Cyanide is another book where a meal is central to a rather clever plot.

  8. Martin - Right you are, of course. Thank you for the reminder. That one really is a well done book on many levels, actually.