“Musings on the Egg and the Detective” (by Mark Evan Walker)

Mark Evan Walker has posted twice before on this blog, the first time about his work as an illustrator (he’s one of EQMM’s finest and most regular art contributors) and the second time in tribute to the fictional character Michael Shayne.  His knowledge of crime fiction is extensive and detailed, as you’ll see in this post that examines the role eggs—including recipes for cooking them—have played in crime fiction. Mark is not only a mystery fan and expert, he’s also a mystery writer, whose first novel, The Case of the Blood Red Stars, was published in 2011. —Janet Hutchings
This portrait of Hercule Poirot, wonderfully designed by Claire Counihan, is from the cover of Hercule Poirot’s Casebook by Agatha Christie, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989 edition.

This portrait of Hercule Poirot, wonderfully designed by Claire Counihan, is from the cover of Hercule Poirot’s Casebook by Agatha Christie, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989 edition.

In Agatha Christie’s novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings gives the first description of sleuth Hercule Poirot: “His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little to one side.” So, the great detective’s famous “little grey cells” were encased in an egg-shaped vessel!

As “buttah” is to Julia Child, I have often been struck by the curious and rather symbiotic relationship between the egg and the detective. They seem to be explicatively blended together, which may stir the question of which came first, the egg or the detective. In any case it took inquisitive minds (food detectives as it were) some millennia ago to discover what to do with the egg, and find creative ways over the centuries to complement its edibility.

Author Ian Fleming confided his own favorite meal was scrambled eggs, and also that of his creation James Bond. Bond often eats scrambled eggs for lunch rather than breakfast, sometimes along with Scottish smoked salmon. Traveling frequently as a spy, Bond takes time to enjoy his meals as “. . . a welcome break in the day, something to look forward to, something to break the tension . . .” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Chapter 2), though Bond’s perfect breakfast on those occasions when he is at home in his bachelor flat in Chelsea is a single brown speckled egg boiled for precisely three and one-third minutes, served in a blue enamel cup with a gold band. Who says Bond is a snob?

Fleming delved into egg-centricity with a Fabergé egg in the James Bond short story, “The Property of a Lady.” Originally commissioned by Sotheby’s for one of their trade journals and later republished in Playboy Magazine, Fleming was so unhappy with his story he refused payment. Ironically, the Fabergé egg was incorporated as the central “McGuffin” to great effect by the scriptwriters into the plot of the 1983 film version of Octopussy.

In Thrilling Cities, a Fleming travelogue, one of the short stories entitled “007 in New York” contains a recipe for Scrambled Eggs “James Bond.” (Reprinted at the end of our article below.) But James Bond is not alone in eating eggs for lunch.

In the course of many a tough case, Mike Shayne can often be found sliding into a booth in a diner along Flagler Street in Miami, in the middle of the afternoon, to wolf down a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. After the death of his wife Phyllis he sometimes makes breakfast in his apartment alone, or in the later books with his secretary Lucy Hamilton, where he usually eats at least half a dozen eggs scrambled himself at a sitting, accompanied by toast and one or two cognac-laced cups of Café Royale.

In the second Thin Man outing, After the Thin Man, Nora has a late night craving as they are going to bed. Nora turns the light back on: “What did you say?” Nick: “Hmmm . . .” Nora: “You say something about scrambled eggs?” Nick: “No Darling, you must be dreaming.” But later, as the festivities for scrambled egg-making begin in the kitchen, an important clue comes crashing through the kitchen window!

Author Rex Stout also loved scrambled eggs and eggs in general. So does his creation, the master detective, Nero Wolfe who is also a full-blown gourmet, and has a full-time gourmet chef, Fritz Brenner. The Wolfe stories are replete with culinary delights. In 1938’s Too Many Cooks, Wolfe accepts an invitation to speak at a gathering of Les Quinze Maîtres (the Fifteen Masters) a group of international chefs, and must travel far from his comfort zone in New York City to the wilds of West Virginia, and the mythical Kanawa Spa. There, the chefs prepare a menu upon which Nora Ephron quipped; “The best meal in English literature? The banquet in Too Many Cooks.” Yet jealousies prevail amongst the chefs, one is murdered, and Wolfe solves one of his most brilliant cases, despite being wounded himself and even discovering the secret recipe he covets for saucisse minuit! Even Agatha Christie was quoted as saying, “I must also reveal that greed and the general enjoyment of food is one of my main characteristics and the descriptions of the meals served and prepared by Nero Wolfe’s cook have given me a lot of pleasure and a great wish to have occasionally tasted these suggestions myself. Perhaps for that reason, I particularly liked Too Many Cooks.”

The novel was first serialized in The American Magazine, who put on a huge literary self-promotion show each spring, featuring celebrities, writers, and actors. Stout went on a twelve-city tour, speaking at an editorial luncheon in each city, with a menu culled from Too Many Cooks. A souvenir menu was included for guests, wrapped in a red box, which included thirty-five recipes from the book. It was limited to a thousand copies, and is a collector’s item today.

The original Dell Keyhole/Mapback paperback, illustrated by Gerald Gregg.

In 1973, Rex Stout and the Editors of Viking Press released The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, a comprehensive and entertaining compilation of recipes from the Wolfe cannon. It contains no less than nine egg dishes and an assortment of omelets and soufflés. Among the egg dishes are shirred eggs with clams, coddled eggs, oeufs au cheval (roughly translated as “eggs on horseback” though Wolfe’s version with paté is slightly more ostentatious than mere hamburger), poached, scrambled (of course!), and one of Wolfe’s favorites, eggs au beurre noir, the French translation being “eggs in dark (black or brown) butter”—rather appropriate for a private detective. Though, as Archie Goodwin tells us in The Father Hunt there is one type of egg that will never be tolerated in Wolfe’s brownstone: fried. Stout’s version of scrambled eggs requires considerable time and patience to make. He even suggests a stool to sit on whist gently stirring the eggs—the longer, the better—not less than forty minutes for perfection!

For The American Magazine by Stan Hunt, June 1949

Of course one can’t ignore some of the culinary mysteries and authors. Virginia Rich, being largely identified as the instigator of this subgenre of what are now affectionately known as “cozies,” with the widowed chef Eugenia Potter doing the detecting in three novels before Rich’s death and followed by Nancy Pickard with three more; Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear also writes a wonderful food-based mystery series featuring Monsieur Pamplemousse and his dog Pommes Frites (who can resist?) in eighteen novels, including the upcoming Monsieur Pamplemousse and the Tangled Web, to be released this fall. Since 2008, author Julie Hyzy has come up with the string of delightful, award-winning cozies, featuring assistant White House chef/sleuth, Olivia Paras. In 2010’s Eggsecutive Orders, a murder occurs after the victim eats food prepared by Paras’s White House kitchen. The Secret Service shuts down the kitchen, just as they are preparing for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll! Gad!

As an illustrator for Ellery Queen, I have had the pleasure of doing a couple of culinary related mysteries—the first for a story by Charlaine Harris, entitled “Dead Giveaway,” in which the major clue was revealed in illustration itself!

For the unusual and unlikely “Murder in the Pineapple Pit” by Amy Myers, featuring a chef/detective, I did the illustration from the body’s “point of view.”

Ironically, as I write this, my latest illustration assignment for EQMM, which will appear this Christmas, happens to be indirectly culinary related. . . .

But I digress as we were speaking about eggs. Which reminds me of Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott mystery, The Scrambled Yeggs . . . ahem . . . and I would be remiss for neglecting Colin Dexter’s Sergeant/Inspector Lewis whose propensity for egg and chips at any time of day would frequently irritate his partner Inspector Morris, who of course preferred a liquid diet; but for now this discussion must be abated—

For some reason hunger is gnawing, the noon hour approaches and as eggs are one of this intrepid author’s favorites—I’m off to butter a pan!

Oh! Here’s that recipe:

Scrambled Eggs “James Bond” from “007 in New York,” Thrilling Cities

For FOUR Individualists

12 Fresh Eggs, Salt, Pepper, 5—6 oz. fresh butter

Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. In a small copper (or heavy-bottomed saucepan) melt four ounces of the butter. When melted, pour in the eggs and cook over very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk.

While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add the rest of butter and continue whisking for half a minute, adding the while finely chopped chives or fine herbs. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittinger) and low music.

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