Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Food & Mysteries - When Eating's Not a Crime

Food and mysteries seem to be as natural as ice cream and apple pie, or pasta and garlic bread or.... Well, you get the idea.

Whether a book is an amateur sleuth, detective, or another type of mystery, it seems that solving the crime can't be done on an empty stomach. In most mysteries, eating is not a crime.

"My character, Susan Lombardi, loves to eat - just about anything," claims Carole Shmurak, author of DEADMISTRESS, A Susan Lombardi Mystery (Sterling House Publishers). "She is fortunate to have a husband who is a gourmet cook so that there is always something good waiting for her when she gets home. Her husband, Swash, makes any number of pasta dishes as well as various Asian specialties."

(Ah, so that's why they call it fiction.)

Another advantage to adding food into their fiction is that authors get to enjoy those luscious dishes they know they shouldn't eat - at least in print.

Author Lorna Barrett says the characters in her Booktown Mysteries, beginning with MURDER IS BINDING (April '08 Berkley Prime Crime) "are constantly stuffing their faces." The series also features recipes. Her protagonist, though, is thin, "and very careful about what she eats," says Barrett. "Everybody else eats with wild abandon."

(Sounds like real life, doesn't it?)

Author Roberta Isleib's character, advice columnist/psychologist Dr. Rebecca Butterman, also knows her way around a kitchen.

"She cooks things I love to eat: roast chicken, cheese puffs stuffed with hot pepper jelly, stir-fried veggies with marinated flank steak," she says. "In ASKING FOR MURDER (Sept. 2008 Berkley), she'll have a dinner party and will serve Spaghetti Carbonara and Red Velvet cake. No Atkins diet for us!"

(Is she sending out invitations, we wonder?)

Some characters, despite wealth and station, like Mary Reed and John Mayer's John the Lord Chamberlain in SEVEN FOR A SECRET (Poisoned Pen Press), actually prefer the simpler things like a savoury lamb or onion stew instead of the more "unusual comestibles" of the sixth century. Oh, and a word of warning - don't drink the "raw Egyptian" wine, a source of common complaint among John's friends.

Luckily, luminaries of the day in these Byzantine-era mysteries seemed to enjoy the finer things of life and left record of it, says Reed: "There's the banquet planned by the courtier Francio, which will offer nothing but bucolic dishes such as smoked cheese and Lucanian sausages, as well as a cheese and garlic paste of the sort of 'salad' about which Virgil wrote."

Quite a few authors seem to think you can't go wrong with Italian food - and they're probably right.

In his novel, THE ASTRAL: TILL THE DAY I DIE, (Wildside Books) Victor J. Banis says he usually uses food for effect. When his protagonist Catherine goes for a romantic dinner with a past love to whom she's still emotionally attached, the typical Italian restaurant is the perfect setting.

He writes, "It was the sort of Italian restaurant that had years ago already been a cliché: red and white checked tablecloths topped with half burned candles in fiascos, a fisherman's net on the wall, replete with glass markers, and on the facing wall a mural straight out of Cavalleria Rusticana..."

"Trust an Italian restaurant where you see Italians eating," Jack said. "They'd rather eat at home, and if they eat out, it should be just like home."

Italian dishes are also favored by Camille Minichino's character in her Periodic Table Mysteries, with good reason: "With a name like Gloria Lamerino, my protagonist is obliged to eat and drink with gusto," says Minichino. "She's Italian, so she loves great Italian desserts and pastries like Svolgliadella (a flaky pastry with almond paste in the middle). Her favorite drink: Affogato -- a scoop of vanilla or chocolate ice cream drowned in espresso!"

The ice cream theme is continued in her Miniature Mystery series (written as Margaret Grace), albeit without the espresso.

Protagonist and grandmother Gerry in MURDER IN MINIATURE (Feb. '08 Berkley) and MAYHEM IN MINIATURE (Aug. '08 Berkley), "eats boring things like bagels and plain ice cream. She does have a 'famous' ginger cookie recipe, however, and I include the recipe in one of the books."

Who can complain about ice cream and cookies? My young sleuths Sam and Lita in SEARCHING FOR A STARRY NIGHT, A Miniature Art Mystery (Quake/Echelon Press) certainly wouldn't.

Between tracking down the whereabouts of a missing miniature Van Gogh painting, the two girls can often be found snacking on chocolate ice cream cones, strawberry ice cream with Cool Whip and fresh strawberries, along with homemade peanut butter cookies. Of course, being busy sleuthing does burn up the calories. And it's hot, so ice cream is a must. (That's what I keep telling myself anyways).

Of course, some foods, like chocolate and ice cream, really don't need excuses to be eaten, do they?

These are just a few of the favorites of some mystery authors and their characters. Feel free to share a few of yours. And forget about calories. For once, they really truly don't count.


Gayle said...

Wow, Chris, what a wonderful and comprehensive post! And affogato sounds delicious. But, alas, a check of the scales this morning has curtailed my indulgences for the next few days. Anyone care to join me for a walk? Maybe cross country?

Roberta Isleib said...

How about a walk and then a meal?? Thanks for a great post Chris and for including Rebecca Butterman in it!

Camille Minichino said...

Well done, Chris! From that terrific opening graphic to the tempting dishes, it's a great post.

Lorna Barrett said...

If I hadn't sprained my foot three weeks ago, I'd join you on that cross-country walk. Instead, I think I'll eat a cookie.

Chris V. said...

But if prizes were given, I think Camille's character's drink sounds yummy - and I don't like espresso!

Marian Allen said...

I love books with recipes in them, but I also love books that just talk about food now and then. Sue Grafton uses food to good effect, and M.C. Beaton does, too. Not only is one of her sleuths named Agatha RAISIN, but Agatha's first book was called Quiche of Death!

Mary Cunningham said...

Super post, Chris! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm getting some lunch!

David Fitzgerald said...

Oink. I'm with everyone else on the affogato - I love ice cream and espresso. Even better...gelato in place of the ice cream, perhaps? Let's ask Camille!

Gayle, I'm with you on that walk.

Chris, what a fun post that was!

Gayle said...

Dana, you start in California, I'll start in Virginia and we'll meet where? In Kansas? Maybe we can pick up some snazzy red shoes while we're there! ;-)

Lisa Hall said...

Chris, this is such an awesome post!