The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has reached its destination! Thanks to our leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, we’ve made it to the last letter of the alphabet with no casualties (except, perhaps, our book-buying budgets ). Before I go any further, I’d like to take a moment and specially thank Kerrie for organising this terrific trip through the alphabet. Please do visit her superb blog, Mysteries in Paradise. It’s a treasure trove of crime fiction news, reviews and resources. If you like crime fiction, I think you’ll find that it’s a “must include” on your blogroll. I know I visit it daily.
So now, on to our final stop. We’ve all had a long journey, so I think it’s appropriate that we all take time for a good meal. That’s why my contribution for this last stop – the letter “Z/Zed” is Ziti and other delicious food. It’s interesting when you think about it how many crime fiction novels and series are centered on fine food. And there are lots of sleuths who truly appreciate a good meal.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, is a gourmand. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, he’s pleased because he’s just discovered a new restaurant and has truly enjoyed his meal. As he himself admits, being a gourmand does present difficulties. After all, one can only eat three meals a day. Nonetheless, he’s happy with his find, but when he returns to his home, he’s told he has a visitor. Superintendent Spence has come to ask a favour. An elderly charwoman has been murdered in her home, and all of the evidence points to her unprepossessing lodger James Bentley. On the evidence, Spence had no choice but to arrest the man, and now he’s been tried and convicted. In fact, Bentley is due to be executed. But Spence doesn’t think Bentley’s guilty, so he asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the victim and her lodger lived. He soon finds out that more than one person had a reason to kill Mrs. McGinty, and as the novel evolves, we learn more and more about some of the secrets the villagers would like to hide. In the end, Poirot gets to the truth about Mrs. McGinty’s murder, but he pays a price. While in Broadhinny, Poirot stays at Long Meadows, a Guest House run by Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. They’re a pleasant and well-liked couple but neither has any idea of how to prepare a decent meal. Poirot suffers through more than one culinary catastrophe and is not pleased about it.
Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez is also a gourmand. He lives and works on the island of Majorca, but he doesn’t let his job get in the way of good living. He loves good food and brandy, and gets very out-of-sorts when he’s not eating well. Alvarez’ cousin Dolores keeps house for him and does the cooking, so she’s got a lot of power in his life. For instance, in Definitely Deceased, Dolores wants Alvarez to clear the name of her cousin-by-marriage Miguel Munar. Munar is suspected of smuggling, but Dolores doesn’t think he’s guilty. Alvarez isn’t eager to investigate this case because it’s not in his jurisdiction. Besides, he’s never overly eager to take on another case. But Dolores finds a unique way to get Alvarez to co-operate. She punishes him with bad cooking. After a short time, Alvarez realises that the only way to restore domestic harmony (and settle his stomach) is to look into the Munar case, so he does. Munar tells Alvarez that there is one witness who could corroborate his innocence, but that witness has disappeared. And then a headless, handless body is discovered in the mountains, and it looks as though that could be the body of the elusive witness. Of course things aren’t as simple as they seem, and Alvarez has his work cut out for him if he’s going to eat well again.
Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti is fortunate enough to be married to a talented cook. Paola Falier is a professor by vocation, but she’s also skilled in the kitchen, which is why Brunetti does his best to be home for meals. Several of Leon’s novels depict the Brunetti family meals in very appealing ways, and I could list some of those descriptions, but you’re better off reading them yourself. I’ll just mention one of my favourite quotes about Paola’s cooking. In About Face, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the murder of a trucking-company owner, some mysterious business dealings and dangerous and illegal toxic waste hauling. One morning, Brunetti and his wife awake to snow. Brunetti gets up, opens the window and presses his hand into it. When he returns to his bed, Paola says,
“‘If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.”
Wise decision, I think.
And of course, no discussion of ziti or any wonderful food would be complete without a mention of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. He lives in Sicily and knows every good trattoria in the area. Montalbano takes his food very seriously and is always appreciative of a well-made meal. In fact, that’s one thing that worries him about the ongoing friction between his housekeeper Adelina and his lover Livia. Adelina is a top-notch cook and always makes sure that Montalbano eats well at home. He has no desire to alienate her. On the other hand, he loves Livia. It’s quite a dilemma for Montalbano. One of my favourite quotes about the way Montalbano feels about food comes from The Snack Thief, in which he, Mimì Augello, Fazio and the rest of the team investigate the shooting death of a Tunisian sailor and the stabbing death of a retired businessman who was killed in the elevator of his apartment house. At one point, Montalbano’s eating his lunch when Mimì joins him at the restaurant and orders a plate of spaghetti with clams:
“When the spaghetti arrived, Montalbano had fortunately finished his hake. Fortunately because Mimì proceeded to sprinkle a generous helping of parmesan cheese over his plate. Christ! Even a hyena, which, being a hyena, feeds on carrion, would have been sickened to see a dish of pasta with clam sauce covered with Parmesan!”
Gourmet cuisine is a central focus of Julie Hyzy’s White House chef series. That series features White House chef Olivia “Ollie” Paras. Because of what Paras does for a living, there’s plenty of delicious food featured in this series. Because of where Paras works, there’s also plenty of political and other intrigue going on. Paras herself is strong-willed, intelligent and witty without being insufferable, and flawed without being stereotypically haunted by demons.
I’d also like to share with those of you who don’t know about it a truly delicious mystery blog, Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen. This blog has several contributors, all of them crime fiction writers. The regular contributors are Avery Aames, Ellery Adams, Elizabeth Spann Craig (who contributes as Riley Adams), Sheila Connelly, Cleo Coyle, Krista Davis, MJ Maffini and Wendy Lyn Watson. There are lots of guest contributors, too. This blog offers some truly tasty recipes and a search function so you can look for all sorts of cooking ideas. I recommend it.
There are lots of other crime fiction novels and series that focus on wonderful food. I’d mention more, but I’m hungry, so I think I’ll go get something to eat ;-). Which are your favourites?
Ps…. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a picture of Roman-style ziti with tomatoes, olives and capers. Appropriate, I thought, for a crime fiction blog ;-).