The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Mushrooms

MushrooomsMmmm… the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has made quite a lot of progress on our treacherous trek through the letters. My thanks as ever to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for such a well-oganised and enjoyable (if dangerous…) trip. Today we’re stopping at M & Co., the world-famous restaurant. Our table isn’t ready yet, so while we’re waiting, I’ll share my contribution for this stop: mushrooms.

Mushrooms can be delicious additions to a lot of different dishes, but as most people know, some varieties are deadly, And that of course makes mushrooms a very effective murder weapon. After all, you can’t easily prove that such a killing was deliberate; the various kinds of mushrooms can be difficult to sort out. And it doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge, strength or skill to use deadly mushrooms. No wonder they show up all the time in crime fiction.

For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train on her way to visit her friend Miss Marple. When another train passes in the same direction, Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the other train’s window just in time to witness a woman being strangled. At first no-one believes her because a body isn’t discovered on the train. But Miss Marple does, and deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which is owned by Luther Crackenthorpe and his family. So Miss Marple fixes it up so that her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow gets a position there as housekeeper, with the understanding that Lucy will search for the body. When she does find the body the police are called in and begin to investigate. Shortly afterwards, everyone gets sick at lunch one day and the mushrooms that Lucy included in the meal are blamed. Then, one of the family members dies. Now it’s clear that someone wants to wreak havoc on the Crackenthorpe family. With help from Lucy’s observant eyes and ears, Miss Marple figures out who the killer is and how that death is related to the death of the unknown woman on the train.

In Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave, murder and poisoning come to the small town of Knavesborough. Small-town-boy-made-good Mark Baldwin, who now calls himself Marco Bellini, returns to Knavesborough after having lived abroad for many years. He throws a housewarming party at which Rose Walnut-Whip becomes ill. Not long afterwards she is found stabbed. Constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Penrose ends up investigating the murder and he and his fiancée Rhapsody Gershwin look into the case. They soon find that more than one person wanted to murder the victim. They’re working on the investigation when another villager Jack Warburton is murdered. His body is discovered by avid mushroom collector Arnold Kickinbottom. Kickinbottom also had a motive for murdering Rose Walnut-Whip and he is most definitely a suspect in this second death too, having (perhaps too conveniently) found the body. Then Kickinbottom himself is poisoned by mushrooms. Perhaps the poisoning was a clever way to throw suspicion from himself, or perhaps there’s a serial killer loose in Knavesborough…

Ariana Franklin’s The Serpent’s Tale is the story of the murder of Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II. When someone feeds Rosamund poisoned mushrooms, the case threatens to cause a major upheaval for the country, especially since there is talk that Queen Eleanor may have been responsible. If she is guilty, the result could be a civil war. The king summons Adelia Aguilar, a doctor and ‘mistress of the art of death’ to find out what really happened to his mistress. She will have to tread very lightly though, since this murder has so many important political ramifications.

Mushrooms also wreak havoc in Julie Smith’s short story Project Mushroom. Katherine is a botanist who’s hired to work on a public-relations project to promote California’s mushroom industry. Project head Martin Larson is infuriating enough that everyone on the project wants to kill him. The longer Katherine works with the team the more she sees how he drives everyone else mad. One night there’s to be a banquet to celebrate the group’s work and call attention to the project. All of the dishes at the banquet contain different varieties of mushrooms. That’s where Larson learns what happens when you aren’t good to the people who work with you. The next morning, the headlines are full of the news of his death, and with all of the mushrooms served at the dinner, the police believe that he must have died from accidental mushroom poisoning. But Katherine knows better…

Dance troupe manager Victor Owens finds out a similar thing in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Scone Cold Dead. Owens is the leader of a Scottish dancing troupe that has decided to go on tour. Former member Liss Macrimmon find out about the tour and invites the group to make a stop in her adopted town of Moosetookalook, Maine, to which she retired after an injury. One night she throws a party for the dance troupe at which different Scottish foods will be featured. Shortly after the party, Owens dies of anaphylaxis brought on by eating a scone filled with mushrooms, to which Owens was violently allergic. Liss soon comes under suspicion since she threw the party and since she was no friend of Owens. But Owens was an obnoxious person who alienated just about everyone and who sexually harassed more than one person. So as Liss tries to clear her own name, she finds plenty of possible ‘replacement suspects.’

See what I mean? Mushrooms can be nasty things if they’re not carefully chosen and properly handled and cooked. But when done right, they really are delicious, don’t you think? Oh, I’ve just been told that our table is ready. Care to join us??? ;-)

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ariana Franklin, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Julie Smith, Kaitlyn Dunnett

32 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Mushrooms

  1. Did you check out Australian mushrooms while you were away, Margot…? The book I immediately think of is The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers – very specific, very scientific, all to do with whether the poisoned mushrooms were naturally occurring or not. As far as I remember – I love her books, and many of them I have reread frequently, but that one I just cannot get up any enthusiasm for!

    • Moira – I must say I didn’t look carefully into Australian varieties of mushrooms, but perhaps I should have. It’s interesting too isn’t it that you can absolutely adore an author’s books, but there are one or two that you just can’t find it in you to savour. I’ve got a list like that, too. Even so, thanks for mentioning The Documents in the CaseIt’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post.

  2. Thanks Margot, as a combined crime-and-mushroom nerd, this is a dream post. The French writer Pierre Magnan is one of my favourites in this respect – Messengers of Death and Death in the Truffle Wood are both worth a read.

    By the way, regarding Australian mushrooms you should check out the octopus stinkhorn – http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/octopus%20stinkhorn – one of the weirdest things you’ll ever see… not sure anybody would ever want to eat one.

    • Rich – Oh, thanks for that link. Yeah, not sure I’d want to eat that…. And thanks for mentioning the Mgnans. He’s an author I really should read more of than I have.

  3. Ugh mushrooms. I don’t run across them much in my reading with the exception of the Arianna Franklin novel you mentioned. Sometimes I run across a story where someone has eaten by mistaken a deadly mushroom. It always reinforces my decision to stay away from them. Somebody said mushrooms have no taste but still, no.

    • Keishon – I think it’s interesting how people feel so differently about mushrooms. I know some people who just love them, and other people who…don’t. My daughter for instance agrees completely with you about mushrooms; she is most definitely not a fan. And I’ve read stories too where people eat poisonous mushrooms, which makes me quite sure that I’m never going to take the chance and gather my own mushrooms. When I eat them, I leave the gathering to the experts.

  4. What an original idea Margot for the crime fiction alphabet. Recently I read Donna Tratt’s The Secret History where a murder is planned with mushrooms. A deadly menu, indeed.

  5. Not quite mushrooms, but your post reminds me of Pierre Magnan’s ‘Death in the Truffle Woods’. There’s something vegetal and pungent about mushrooms and truffles that goes very well with a murder story. Nice post Margot.

    • Sarah – Thanks – And thanks for reminding me of Death in the Truffle Woods; that’s a novel I’ve been wanting to read. And you’re right, mushrooms and truffles really are both pungent and vegetal – even elemental. And that does make for good crime fiction.

  6. Wonderful post about mushrooms!!

    I love Mushrooms!! In real life and in fiction. Of course I prefer the edible variety on my plate!

    Here is my CFA – M is for Martin Edwards post.

  7. I love mushrooms too, and have fond memories of going to hunt for them in the woods as a child. Of course, we had knowledgeable grown-ups with us – and I have never really learnt that skill, so wouldn’t trust myself to do it now! It’s such a perfect murder weapon, though, isn’t it, because it can always be presented as an accident!

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, how fun that you got to go out hunting for mushrooms. I had did that but I’ll bet you had a very good time. Like you, I never really acquired the skill of distinguishing edible mushrooms from those that weren’t, so I rely on experts to take care of that for me, too. And you’re right about what a great weapon mushrooms are in crime fiction. It’s easy to make a mistake with mushrooms so, as you say, it’s quite easy to mistake the edible kind from the dangerous kind…

  8. I’m writing a poisonous mushroom mystery now! Using Destroying Angel mushroom. :) Nice post, Margot. Glad you’re home safely.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks, yes I am home safely. And what perfect timing – you’re writing about the Destroying Angel just when I posted about mushrooms! Folks I promise, we didn’t talk about this beforehand. Really! I’m looking forward to reading your book as I always do.

  9. I thought of THE SECRET HISTORY too. But Neer beat me to it. A very potent means of murder indeed.

  10. Col

    All 3 of my children think my wife is poisoning them if she serves them mushrooms! Me? I love them, I think the texture puts my brood off.

    • Col – Interesting isn’t it how some people really do get put off by mushrooms and it could indeed be the texture. It’s quite different to most other foods isn’t it?

  11. A little off the point but I giggle every time I read the names of Dorte’s characters; she’s so clever. Also love the name Moosetookalook, Maine. When I lived in Maine, I loved finding funny names there and this could very well have been one of them.

    • Barbara – I love the names that Dorte chooses, too. She’s gifted that way. And there are some very interesting names in small towns, and it’s not just in Maine. Little towns and villages sometimes come up with the best names!

  12. kathy d.

    I love mushrooms, especially Portabello but others as well. Put them in anything and it tastes better, especially in butter.
    However, I will add my vote to Death in the Truffle Wood, quite an interesting book by Pierre Magnan. It gives one a flavor of rural France where farmers count on truffle sales to get by economically. Interesting characters in this book — and Rosalind, the truffle-hunting pig helps to identify the murderer.

  13. I love mushrooms. I can only remember TV mysteries (Midsomer Murders of course) with mushrooms as poisoning. I want to read The Cosy Knave and The Serpent’s Tale.

    • Tracy – I think you’d like both The Serpent’s Tale and The Cosy Knave. They’re quite different kinds of stories, but they’re both engaging. And I’m so glad you mentioned Midsomer Murders. That was a good show.

  14. I love mushrooms on my steak, the good ones not the bad one. :)

  15. Peter Reynard

    I used to be suspicious of mushrooms just because of all the stories I’ve read. But I finally took the plunge a few years back and oh boy I love them. Especially on a steak like a lot of us. :)

    • Peter – You are, as you know, not alone in loving mushrooms on a good steak. When they’re done properly they can add a lot to a dish. I think perhaps people are wary of them because, as you say, there are stories. And unless you know what you’re doing it’s easy to choose the wrong ones. That’s why I let the experts choose mushrooms for me. And I make sure I am friendly to them. ;-)

  16. Hey this is fun! It reminds of a mystery I saw, recently, MidSomer Murder. (MidSomer may not be spelled right. It isn’t Summer, I know that! :) Mushrooms had an odd role in this story. The Murderer had a large basket of mushrooms which she took with her to the house where she killed the occupants, one of her many violent acts! The thing is – there were few mushrooms in this basket … there was enough room, below the mushrooms and the towel holding the mushrooms, for a change of clothes. Interesting that your essay would remind me of those mushrooms! :-D

    • Midsomer Murders is a well-done series, I think. And of course, mushrooms are just tricky enough that it’s easy to to disguise the ones that are not good. And you know, you’ve reminded me of just how useful baskets can be. They can hide all sorts of things, including weapons and changes of clothing.

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