Dining with death: crime fiction’s long affair with food

From Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Maigret, fictional detectives often have healthy appetites, while ‘culinary cozy’ combines murders with recipes. Why do crime writers have a taste for food?

In “The Noble Bachelor” Sherlock Holmes presents Watson with a brace of woodcock and a pâté de foie gras pie. Holmes himself was partial to curried chicken and mixed his own blend of earl grey and lapsang souchong. Inspector Maigret would make a detour for skate wings with black butter, mussels in cream and choucroute. American mystery writer Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe weighed “a seventh of a ton”, and employed a Swiss chef called Fritz who made him “Shad roe mousse Pocahontas” and “Avocado Todhunter” (a rather anaemic combination of avocado, watercress, lemon and crushed ice). Detective Van der Valk (the creation of the almost forgotten former chef Nicolas Freeling) ate his salt herring “the way the Dutch do, holding it up above his mouth like a seal in the zoo”. Even the no-nonsense Sam Spade slid into a booth at San Francisco’s famous John’s Grill in The Maltese Falcon to order his lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomato. Crime writing has had a long – and body-strewn – affair with food.

For of course, as the great 19th-century food chemist Frederick Accum wrote, sometimes “there is death in the pot”. In her 1930 classic Strong Poison, Dorothy L Sayers had her heroine Harriet Vane stand trial for poisoning her ex-lover with a sweet omelette. Poison was Agatha Christie’s preferred method of dispatch by far – having been a dispensing chemist she knew a lot about it. It is the instrument of murder in almost half her books, added to, among other things, marmalade, tea, cocktails (And Then There Were None), a butter sauce for fish (Sad Cypress) and a bitter chocolate cake (A Murder is Announced).

Time, if anything, has only fed crime writing’s appetite for food. Today one can hardly move for detectives intent on dinner. In between navigating the murkinesses of Sicilian crime, Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano reaches into his fridge for his housekeeper Adelina’s arancini balls and squid ink pasta. Camilleri named his detective in honour of the Spanish writer and intellectual Manuel Vázquez Montalban, who created his own gastronome-private eye in Pepe Carvalho, a weary, sardonic Catalan with a penchant for rice dishes and a good recipe for fish stew. Montalbano, Carvalho, along with Maigret, Wolfe and even Christie, have had recipe books published in their honour (Maigret’s, in the 1970s, was written by the respected French food writer Robert Courtine).

Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock
Eating and thinking … Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. Photograph: BBC/Hartswood Films

In the US, food and crime have reached their logical conclusion: there’s a whole subgenre known as the “culinary cozy” with titles like Toast Mortem, Butter off Dead, and The Long Quiche Goodbye. The ultimate comfort reads, they give you a murder, a solution and most important of all, recipes; the detectives are chefs (in one case the White House’s chef – the book gives you all you need for your own presidential dinner), or tea shop owners or chocoholics or cake obsessives, full of practical good sense and advice on barbecue techniques.

I, too, have recently succumbed. My latest book, The Devil’s Feast, features a Victorian celebrity chef (the real life culinary prodigy Alexis Soyer), several long meals and some very painful deaths. It’s caused me to reflect on why food is such an effective and pleasurable adjunct to crime writing and what function it serves in these books.

One thing good crime novels give you, along with the puzzle of the crime, is a world. It might be Maigret’s mid-century France, Rebus’s Edinburgh, Shardlake’s Tudor England or Carvalho’s Spain (Montalban was explicit in his desire to describe contemporary Spain and all its faults). They open up the life and social habits of the world they investigate. Good food writing does the same thing. Roland Barthes wrote, “an entire world is present in and signified by food”. In crime writing, descriptions of food immediately add texture, authenticity and three-dimensionality. They are a kind of shorthand. Look, they say, this world is real, the glasses are chipped and the shiny hot bacon fat sheens the plates, even if the crime is far-fetched. They also reach out beyond the crime and its investigation. The writer Jason Goodwin, whose investigator Yashim is a eunuch and a keen cook at the 19th century Ottoman court, has written, “You uncover a place in the scent of a dish, more absolutely than in a thousand words.” This is never more clear than in the Maigret novels, where the inspector learns the world of the crime and its secrets by eating, inhaling the atmosphere of grubby basement bars and shabby bistros, knocking back a small glass of marc, accepting a plate of roast lamb and a few leaves bathed in a garlic dressing.

Luca Zingaretti Montalbano
Luca Zingaretti in an Italian adaptation of Montalbano. Photograph: PR

Food also defines, elaborates – and humanises – character. “Sherlock Holmes played the violin. I cook,” said Carvalho. But cooking and eating is more than just a habit. It is in food – along with sex – that Carvalho finds respite from the politics and corruption that he so jadedly observes. Holmes’s tea blend suggests light eccentricity, while his hearty diet is one of the few respects in which he is similar to his gentleman creator Conan Doyle. The eunuch Yashim’s precise pleasure in cooking demonstrates a fastidious, agile mind. The fact that, in the exaggeratedly gendered world of the Ottoman court, he cooks at all reminds us how he bestrides both male and female worlds and possesses a unique perspective wider than the rest. For Montalbano too, food provides a civilised and nostalgic relief from the horrors of his work. Food resonates with the past: as he reaches into the fridge for his dinner, he remembers being a little boy on the Sicilian festival of All Souls’ Day, and reaching excitedly and nervously into the traditional wicker basket of sweet treats “which the dead had left … during the night” (The Terracotta Dog). And he prefers to eat alone, as if for all his humour and levity, he trusts more to the comfort of food than the uncertainties of human relationships. Even Sam Spade, in choosing John’s Grill, shows he has his finger on the city’s pulse and is not bereft of a little class.

It’s a peculiarity of these books that food and eating rarely progress the plot. Descriptions of eating or cooking are dropped coolly into the action, and suspend it. There’s a current orthodoxy in certain kinds of crime and thriller writing that a book is a dash to the edge of the volcano crater, action and tension upon action and tension. But that’s not the whole story – look at Lee Child, who doesn’t do food but does do plenty of description. These moments of digression let air into the plot. They give a necessary beat, a breath, a lull. They pull back from the blood and chaos. They re-establish the world around the crime. They even create more suspense, as the reader is diverted and waits for the next breakthrough. I wonder too, if there is not some similarity in the rhythms of good crime writing and good food writing. Many crime novelists have written about food, among them Freeling, Montalban and the thriller writer Len Deighton. Both require precision and an abjuring of over-wordiness.

Food, as inevitable as death, is the perfect digression in these books: it is the natural counter, a tangible weapon, against the disruption and chaos of murder and violence. (Of course, sex is another fundamental too, but sex scenes that aren’t cliched, wince-making or offensively titillating are rare.) “Dining is the privilege of civilisation,” Mrs Beeton wrote. As these investigators cook and eat they assert life, reason and thought. And though food is fallow time from the plot, the implication is that it is tied up with intelligence, cogitation and therefore the resolution of the story. The elephantine Nero Wolfe will not allow cases to be discussed while he eats, but when he ponders and solves in his chair with his eyes closed, his lips push in and out as if he’s chewing. Maigret solves cases like he eats, immersing his senses, almost savouring.

Rowan Atkinson  Inspector Maigret
Rowan Atkinson as Inspector Maigret. Photograph: Colin Hutton/PR Image

It’s appropriate then, that in the main the classic hard-boiled American crime novel is usually food-free. American detectives live off salt, fast food, grease and caffeine; in their world things move too fast for a sit-down dinner. The implication is that fine food is decadent. This is particularly the case with tough female investigators who establish their fitness to walk the mean streets by having no domestic talents or interests. Thus Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone cuts her hair with nail scissors and lives off McDonald’s and KFC.

What we see less of these days is crime fiction that subverts the safe rituals of eating, where the civilised becomes the vehicle of savagery. Poisoning barely features in contemporary crime writing, no doubt because forensics and detection are so good these days, and poisoning feels too Grand Guignol (though lashings of elaborately described torture, blood and guts apparently do not). Hannibal Lecter, so profoundly unsettling because of the complete lack of contradiction he sees in being a civilised epicure while giving full rein to his darkest urges, is a rare and powerful example.

This is surprising, as some of the oldest roots of crime-writing – in the new popular newspapers that sprung up in the early 1840s, such as Lloyd’s Weekly and the News of the World – were intertwined with the subversion of food. These newspapers, which devoted half their space to crime and murder, arrived at the beginning of what’s been called the golden age of Victorian poisoning, as chemists began to develop reliable tests to detect poison and the perpetrators began to stand trial.

There were 98 poisoning trials in Britain during the 1840s and the papers covered them in breathless, gleeful detail. Some of the most prominent involved women knocking off husbands, children, lodgers and lovers by adding arsenic and strychnine (cheap and easy to get) to porridge, coffee and soup. In 1843 alone two women were hanged for multiple domestic poisonings. Elizabeth Eccles for killing her five children and a stepson (she was suspected of poisoning five earlier children); and Sarah Dazeley for killing two husbands and her son. The subversion of the domestic hearth and pot made the stories sinister indeed. Maybe, after all, some stories are too dark for novels.

The Devil’s Feast by Miranda Carter is published by Fig Tree. To order a copy for £12.29 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Miranda Carter

The GuardianTramp

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