When it comes to the connection between cooking and mysteries, we can’t think of a more knowledgable author than Katherine Hall Page. She is often cited as one of the foremost writers in the culinary crime genre, and she is the author of twenty-five mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth/caterer Faith Fairchild. That twenty-fifth book in the Fairchild series, The Body in the Wake, is out now. Primarily a novelist, Katherine also writes short stories occasionally, and our current issue contains her first for EQMM, entitled “The End of the Line.” The New England author’s fiction has been recognized with Agatha Awards for best first novel, best novel, and best short story, and she has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award. Particularly relevant to this post, she also pens a cookbook series, which includes Have Faith in Your Kitchen (2010) and Small Plates (2014). Two things we know about the crisis caused by Covid-19: People under stay-at-home orders are reading a lot of mysteries and they are doing a lot of cooking. Below you’ll find some reading suggestions that will also point you to some recipes!—Janet Hutchings
Reading and food go together. Propping a book up to keep turning the pages while eating is one of life’s great, guilty pleasures—a necessarily solo activity unless those sharing a meal are similarly engaged or uncommonly understanding. Now, during the horror that is the coronavirus both reading and eating have taken on even greater significance. Many are alone in self quarantine or lockdown and are pairing comfort reads with comfort food for company. Mom’s mac ‘n’ cheese recipe along with rereading an old favorite. And maybe a glass of a witty Merlot. According to polls, we are turning to the escape and solace books provide as never before. For great numbers of readers this means mysteries, especially traditional ones with justice-served endings that grant a moment of relief. As P.D. James put it, “These novels are always popular in ages of great anxiety. It’s a very reassuring form. It affirms the hope that we live in a rational and beneficent universe.” Amen.
The history of the mystery goes back to Arthurian legends and Icelandic sagas, among others; but the history of the link between food and crime is more recent, unless we count retellings of accomplished banquet poisoners like Nero or the Borgias. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) wrote that “Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them.” If you combine this observation with the Baron De Mareste (1784-1867)’s Le mauvais gout mène au crime— “Bad taste leads to crime” some years prior, we get a sense of why culinary crime novels have been popular since their beginning. But which work marked that start?
Some cite Poe’s “The Casque of Amontillado” (1846) as the first culinary mystery. The narrator, Montresor, lures his already inebriated victim, Fortunato, into the palazzo’s cavernous wine cellars with the promise of tasting a rare vintage sherry. Montresor walls up Fortunato, still alive, in a convenient niche near conveniently stashed bricks. Presumably no Amontillado crossed the doomed man’s lips. The story is not one of detection but horror, and the wine plays a rather minor supporting role. Similarly, a comestible in the form of a Christmas goose assumes a role in Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” The jewel is discovered in its craw. The fowl is a fat one and there is an allusion to roasting it, but nothing to whet our appetites save Holmes’s inimitable method of detection.
Excellent as both these stories are, I’d differ and go to Rex Stout (1886-1975) and Charlotte Murray Russell (1899-1992) with Stout’s Nero Wolfe as the somewhat irascible father of culinary crime and Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards the slightly more amiable mother. Fer-de-Lance, the book that introduced Rex Stout’s corpulent detective and his sidekick Archie Goodwin, was published in 1934; the year before Jane Amada, a self-described “full-fashioned” woman made her 1935 debut in Murder at the Old Stone House. Both Stout and Russell were born in the Midwest. Russell stayed and set the Edwards books in a thinly disguised version of her own hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. Rex Stout left and occupied a much larger stage, although his agoraphobic sleuth Nero Wolfe resided in, and seldom left, his Manhattan brownstone, tending his orchids and ordering meals from his personal chef, Fritz Brenner, of whom Archie said, “He could even make milk toast taste superb.”
Rex Stout’s masterpiece Too Many Cooks stands alone in the annals of culinary crime. Stout, in a rare departure, takes Nero Wolfe out of his NYC comfort zone to a resort in West Virginia, the setting for a gathering of the crème de la crème of international chefs—Les Quinze Maîtres, The 15 Masters. Wolfe hopes to obtain a much desired, and well-guarded, secret recipe for Saucisse Minuit from one of the chefs. The fun and games prior to the first murder suggest a Food Network challenge. Chefs must identify dishes and ingredients while blindfolded. The plot is a classic locked-room one and is not overwhelmed by the food—no mean feat. When asked what was the best meal in English literature, Nora Ephron replied, “The banquet in Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout.”
The banquet, planned by Nero Wolfe, comes at the end of the book and is his impassioned defense of American cuisine, delivering a hearty slap in the face to the sceptical sophisticated chefs attending. Here are just a few of the delectable dishes, plates no doubt licked clean: Philadelphia Snapper Soup, Terrapin Stewed in Butter, Planked Porterhouse Steak, Boone County Missouri Ham, Creole Tripe, Lobster Newburgh, Beaten Biscuits, Sally Lunn, Pineapple Sherbet, and Sponge Cake. The definitive source for information on both the brilliant detective and his creator is John McAleer’s 1977 Edgar winner, Rex Stout: A Biography. Among Stout’s legion of fans were both Agatha Christie and M.F.K. Fisher.
Rex Stout published forty-seven Nero Wolfe mysteries as well as many short stories (in the pages of this magazine!), other novels, and plays. Charlotte Murray Russell, in contrast, published only twelve in the Edwards series and eight other mysteries. She started crafting the novels during the Depression to put food on the family table and ended her career in 1953 at age fifty-four saying she was tired of writing. She remained very active until her death at ninety-three, working at her Rock Island library and making notes for a memoir.
Russell’s female amateur sleuth was a breakthrough, combining a sharp sense of humor with equally sharp powers of detection and observation. Much more down to earth than Miss Marple, Miss Edwards nevertheless shares an uncanny ability to see through a tissue of lies—she calls herself, “old X-ray Jane”—as well as extrapolate village life to all human behavior. A forty-something spinster, Jane Amanda is the head of a household consisting of a younger sister and brother. Her brother’s penchant for drink—one glass of wine sends him over the edge—and unsuitable women keeps Jane on her toes, not an easy task given her 180 pounds. And all of them the result of the mouth-watering food described in the series. Like Stout’s, Russell’s books are a celebration of American regional cooking, in this case midwestern comfort food. In books like Cook Up A Crime, the housekeeper Theresa’s chicken and dumplings, lemon meringue pie, fudge cake, and other staples may send readers straight to the fridge and pantry, especially as it contained an occasional recipe. Rue Morgue Press, 87 Lone Tree Lane, Lyons CO 80540, has reissued a number of Charlotte Murray Russell’s books and they more than stand up.
While many meals are consumed, and some described in detail, in Agatha Christie’s work, particularly in the Poirots, it is Dorothy Sayers who first comes to mind when cataloging culinary crime across the pond. The Documents in the Case may put one off mushrooms for life even as it introduces us to the world of fatal fungi. However, it is Sayers 1928 short story, “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste” that showcases her knowledge of food and more especially drink. In vino veritas she notes in the tale, and Peter Wimsey unmasks his imposter by correctly identifying the obscure wines accompanying each course at a chateau in France before repairing to the library for a suitably venerable cognac with his host. Among Sayers’s many UK successors, Janet Laurence, a cookery expert, has created a chef, Darina Lisle, as knowledgeable in the kitchen as she is in detecting. The first in the series of ten books is A Deepe Coffyn (1989). Another favorite is A Tasty Way to Die (1990).
In the US, the culinary-crime pioneer who extensively included recipes in her mysteries was Virginia Rich (1914-1985). Like Rex Stout and Charlotte Murray Russell, her roots were in the Midwest, but after her marriage she went on to live in many places, spending the latter part of her life moving between the family’s working cattle ranch near Tucson, Arizona and the small Maine coastal village of Corea. Both provided settings for her work. She only published three novels: The Cooking School Murders (1982), The Baked Bean Supper Murders (1983), and The Nantucket Diet Murders (1985), but anyone writing in this subgenre owes her a debt. Rich set the bar high. Her amateur sleuth, Eugenia Potter, is a widow in her sixties and, while not a professional chef, more than knows her way around a kitchen. ‘Genia also enjoys a very dry martini, or two.
Virginia Rich’s books were unique not only for the introduction of so many recipes—outlined in the text and in detail on the endpapers—but also for the treatment of character and place. The mysteries are good puzzles, but it is Mrs. Potter herself and Rich’s depiction of her world that has made these books continuing pleasures—great rereads. The Baked Bean Supper Murders is a portrait of Down East life that had all but vanished even before the current pandemic—Grange Hall suppers, lobstering with just a plumb line and a compass, the post office as the main source of news, and Saturday night baked-bean family meals from the bean pot that had been sitting overnight on the wood stove. Rich’s recipes are also a celebration of American regional cuisine: Blueberry Buckle, Sour Cream Cole Slaw, Baked Ham, Molasses Cookies, Steamed Brown Bread, Lobster Pie, and dishes from the Southwest. After Virginia Rich’s death, her family asked renowned mystery writer Nancy Pickard to complete the manuscript for The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders (1993). Pickard wrote two more in the series from notes Rich left: The Blue Corn Murders (1998) and The Secret Ingredient Murders (2001), providing readers with a happy total of six Eugenia Potter books.
Continuing the tradition and foreshadowing the plethora of culinary mystery novels that followed is Diane Mott Davidson, the author of seventeen Goldy Schulz culinary mysteries to date. She published the first, Catering to Nobody, in 1990. The book introduced Goldy, a recent divorcee with a young son, trying to make a living as a caterer in a small Colorado town. All Davidson’s books include recipes and like Rich, character and place are well represented at the table.
One of the most enduring nonseries classics in culinary crime is Nan and Ivan Lyons’ Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1990). They wrote several others in the genre, but this is the piece de resistance and also quite tasty in the screen version, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), with an outstanding cast—George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Philippe Noiret, and especially Robert Morley. One by one the chefs are dispatched in a manner that relates to his signature dish. Readers will never look at a duck press the same way again.
We are all cooking at home now and there are a number of mystery cookbooks that satisfy a wide variety of tastes. A few of my favorites are: Madame Maigret’s Recipes (1975), compiled by the noted French food writer, Robert Courtine, in honor of Simenon’s seventieth birthday; The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook (1981), Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins; The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook (1973), William Bonnell; and The Nancy Drew Cookbook, Clues to Good Cooking (1973), Carolyn Keene—this last notable for the “Dancing Puppet Parfait” recipe, a mix of apricot nectar, marshmallows, and whipped cream. Many contemporary crime writers have turned to the kitchen as well: Donna Leon, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Cornwell, and Alexander McCall Smith.
In a sense, writing a mystery novel is like creating a recipe. Both have “ingredients,” and at the end of the process you hope to have something worth consuming, something done to a turn. Food is a way to define character in books and real life—we are known by what we eat. There’s Kinsey Milhone and her peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, as well as my friend Henry who won’t come within a mile of garlic!
Many nonculinary crime writers have featured food in some manner in their works, as the means to an end (literally) or an expression of their own and their character’s appreciation of the table. Robert B. Parker’s books are filled with descriptions of meals eaten and meals prepared. “When in doubt, cook something and eat it,” Spenser, his memorable P.I., said. I came across the line recently and thought it was an excellent mantra for these frightening days.
We are all in this together— “Living in the Now,” with a book and a plate in hand.
What a wonderful essay, Katherine! Thank you for all those references, many of which are new to me. Your own culinary mysteries are some of my favorites, and I was reading them in the early nineties along with Davidson’s. Both of you were key in inspiring me to write my own (several) series in the genre! Thank you.