It’s a safe bet that the mystery novel you are currently reading includes one or more home-cooked meals… or will have a key scene or two set in a restaurant… or will have a subplot that whirls around food… or will have a character who is concerned with food — e.g. a professional cook, restaurant owner, butler, or (in two of our novels) the curator of a tea museum.
We didn’t set out to incorporate food in our three cozy mystery series, but we ended up doing all of the above — as we realized, to our amusement, when a friend pointed out the high-caloric nature of our fiction.
At first, we countered with the simplest explanation: Our focus on food was automatic because we love good puzzles and we love good eats. How could we help but link the two together in our mysteries?
Moreover, food is one of the bedrock human needs. Most mysteries — including ours — are tales of everyday life gone wrong. Consuming food — a person’s first and (often) last pleasure — is a common denominator shared by every character. Everyone eats — the good, the bad, the eccentric, and the sleuthful.
Our friend remained unconvinced: “Authors of mystery novels wrote about eating long before you two were born or Maslow created his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Food has been a staple in many (most?) mystery novels since Wilkie Collins wrote “The Moonstone” more than 140 years ago. There has to be a really good reason why murder and munching go so well together.”
Happily, we were polishing off hefty helpings of superb Fettuccine Fra Diavolo at the time, definitely in the right frame of mind to muse about other explanations.
For starters, we noted that food is laden with allegory and imagery, and so deserves to be a novelist’s plaything. Although we hardly ever invent figures of speech purposefully (the best ones happen on their own), our “mindsets” obviously include assumptions about food that show up in our writing:
Food lightens the circumstances. It’s hard to be angry after a good meal. For the same reason, a dining scene is calming — even when the reader suspects that one of the diners will keel over from a touch of oleander in his/her tapioca pudding. Consequently, consumption of food is a useful “pacing device.”
Meals represent routine and stability in a mystery — islands of normalcy in a sea of misbehaving characters. People come together at mealtime; the very act of serving food demonstrates caring, even love. Consequently, arguments during meals are especially significant and an interrupted meal signals trouble (as when the CID inspector arrives in the middle of breakfast to interrogate the family).
For the same reasons, restaurants are unforeseen locales for murder — no one expects to be done-in at a restaurant, with the possible exception of Tony Soprano’s colleagues.
Turn things around and it’s obvious why food must be grabbed on the run in a thriller or action-oriented novel. Does anyone remember Jason Bourne or James Bond enjoying a quiet dinner?
Despite the profusion of “Alpha Male” heroes who cook well, they still have the power to surprise. The ability to prepare good food remains an effective symbol that signifies a streak of domesticity (and normalcy) under that gruff knightly exterior. Perhaps this is because most readers still see non-professional cooking (i.e., at home) as “women’s work.”
Speaking of symbols … novelists are advised to show rather than tell. Highlighting different tastes in food is a great way to illuminate the personality of characters with actions rather than words. Pippa Hunnechurch, our first heroine, is a gutsy Brit. We signaled her heritage — and her British bulldog nature — when she vigorously defended fatty roast beef and cholesterol-rich English Trifle. Pippa’s interlocutor was a health-conscious American who saw both foods as anti-heart missiles.
Eating is also a great reason to get diverse characters together and give them a logical opportunity to interact. A meal is an obvious opportunity to convey backstory details, express concerns, even express dislike that will soon ripen into a red herring (as when the aggrieved Miss Higginbotham tosses the clichéd beaker of wine at Lord Frangipane’s face hours before his suspicious demise, and thus transforms herself into a suspect).
Obviously, a “red herring” is yet one more allusion to food in mysteries (in this case, smelly food), although fish cured in brine strong enough to turn its flesh red is not our idea of a treat.
Lastly, food can be a convenient murder weapon — the most bloodless, though not necessarily the most painless. As everyone knows, poison is especially useful for female villains who prefer to murder their victims at a distance.
As we noted earlier, food in cozy mysteries has become… well, obsessive. It’s gone so far that several cozy mystery authors have produced cookbooks.
Our three cozy series are veritable larders. The Pippa Hunnechurch Mysteries are full of food — including the titles (“A Trifle to Die For,” “Bauble and Squeak,” and “The Curry Killing”). Ditto the Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries (“Dead as a Scone” and “The Final Crumpet”) and The Glory North Carolina Mysteries (although “Grits and Glory” is the only edible title). And yes, we did weave recipes into several of the novels.
At this point, our friend waxed on “Not only is food prominent in many mystery titles — but it apparently has to be baked into an awful pun. Why is that?”
“That’s easy,” we replied more or less together. “Using a foodstuff pun in the title communicates that the novel is a fun-to-read mystery with no in-your-face violence.”
“I still don’t get it,” our friend said. “Something as grim as murder shouldn’t be paired with something as joyful as… ice cream. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone wrote a mystery titled ‘The Two Scoop Terminator.’”
There seemed nothing more to say — especially because we expected our friend to pay the bill cheerfully. We left the restaurant musing to ourselves: Although few modern mystery novels treat food as solemnly as did the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout (his books taught us the right way to make scrambled eggs and cook corn on the cob), perhaps the time has come for mysteries to carry both ingredients and nutrition labels.
Ron has been a writer forever—initially on magazines (his first real job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Magazine), then in corporations (he wrote speeches for senior executives), and then as a novelist. Over the years, Ron has authored ten non-fiction books, including the recently published “Know Your Rights — a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” (published by Sterling). Ron holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a juris doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law. He was a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Ron and Janet’s books can be accessed at Amazon.com.
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Sasscer Hill on 5/18 and Carolyn Mulford on 5/25. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at email@example.com.