For many people, wine is as much a part of a meal as any food is. For those who enjoy wine, a good glass of the right wine is one of life’s true pleasures. I’m not referring here to people who drink an awful lot; that’s an entirely different thing. Rather, I’m referring to wine – separate from other alcohol. Wine has been a symbol of joy, a token of thanks, a romantic gesture, a bond between friends, a “guest gift” and more for millennia. It’s an important part of the culture for lots of people. So it makes sense that we see it in crime fiction too.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, enjoys fine wine as much as he enjoys good food. To Poirot, the right wine complements a meal and is worth taking the time to choose carefully. In several of the novels that feature Poirot there are scenes where’s he’s enjoying a meal with the right wine and it matters to him. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot is on board an airplane en route from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. DCI James “Jimmy” Japp is assigned to the case, and Poirot works with him to find the killer. The victim is Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Because of her business, there are several suspects in the murder, but since she was killed on board the aircraft, the only people who could have committed the crime are her fellow passengers. Part of the investigation is carried out in Paris, and Poirot works with M. Fournier of the Sûreté on this angle. At one point, Fournier is interrogating Madame Giselle’s household staff – unsuccessfully. He’s frustrated and so are the staff members. Here is how Poirot salvages the situation:
“‘Come mon vieux,’ he said. ‘The stomach calls. A simple but satisfying meal, that is what I prescribe. Let us say omelette aux champignons, sole à la Normande – a cheese of Port Salut, and with it red wine. What wine exactly?
That’s enough to diffuse the situation just a bit, and Poirot even manages to get some valuable information from Madame Giselle’s house staff.
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is very knowledgeable about wine, although he isn’t arrogant about it. Still, he enjoys a good bottle of wine and his knowledge is woven into the series in several places. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club for instance, Wimsey investigates two deaths. Old General Fentiman, a member of Wimsey’s club, has died while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, also dies. In this case, the time of each one’s death is critical; if Lady Dormer dies first, the money would pass to Fentiman’s grandson. If the general dies first, the fortune passes to Ann Dorland, Lady Dormer’s distant cousin. Then it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. So now, Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker have to find out not only which victim died first but also who poisoned Fentiman. At one point, Wimsey has dinner with Ann Dorland. Here’s a bit of their conversation about the dinner:
“‘What do you think of the Romanée Conti?’ he asked, suddenly.
‘I don’t know much about wine. It’s good. Not sweet, like Sauterne. It’s a little – well – harsh. But it’s harsh without being thin – quite different from that horrid Chianti people always seem to drink at Chelsea parties.’
‘You’re right; it’s rather unfinished, but it has plenty of body – it’ll be a grand wine in ten years’ time. It’s 1915. Waiter, take this away and bring me a bottle of the 1908.’”
Wimsey gives Ann Dorland an important piece of advice during the dinner, and Sayers also uses that meal to provide a clue to the murder.
Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the former postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. When changes in the postal system mean the loss of the little post office she’s loved, Harry leaves the postal service and focuses on her farm. But she needs extra income. So during the course of Cat’s Eyewitness, she takes the decision to grow grapes and see if she can make wine. Then, in Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned grape and wine expert Professor Vincent Forland. He’s travelling to all of the local wineries and Harry is hoping he can give her some feedback on how to make the most of her wine-making experiences. Forland arrives and begins his tour, but he disappears and is later found murdered. Now Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.
Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas is also familiar with winemaking. As we learn in Water Blue Eyes, Caldas’ father is a Galician vintner whose vineyard is in the countryside not very far from Vigo. The two aren’t particularly close but in Death on a Galician Shore, Caldas pays a few visits to the vineyard and we can see the two men working towards some sort of relationship. In that novel, Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the supposed suicide of Justo Castelo, a local fisherman. At first people accept the explanation of suicide because there are some signs that point to it. But there are just as many signs that suggest that Castelo did not commit suicide. So Caldas and Estevez look into Castelo’s life. That’s when they discover that he has a haunting past that plays an important role in this mystery. There are a few instances in the novel where Caldas visits his father’s vineyard and in fact, he gets an important clue from one of those visits. Although he isn’t what you would call a “wine snob,” Caldas enjoys white wine and that’s frequently his drink of choice.
Oh, and I should tell you if you don’t already know: Galician wine is world-class. It is on my list of Best. Wine. Evah.
Also on that list is good New Zealand wine. We learn a little about that wine in Paddy Richardsons’ Hunting Blind. Fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson confronts her own haunted past when one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a terrible story. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted one night and never found. Not even a body was discovered. The family was never the same afterwards, and that’s part of the cause of Clark’s psychological problems. This story eerily mirrors Anderson’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted; she was never found either. When she realises that both young girls could have been abducted by the same person, Anderson decides to try to find some peace for her family. She decides to find out what really happened to Gemma. So she travels from Dunedin, where she is living and practicing, to her home in Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide named Dan, who has a sad history of his own. Dan persuades her to go on a hunting trip although she’s never done that before and although she has her own preconceptions about him. One night he invites her for dinner:
“‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’”
In several places in this novel there are some other warm scenes made all the more charming with delicious wine. Oh, trust me. It’s delicious.
Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces us to Stockholm psychologist Dr. Siri Bergman, who shares part of her practice with her best friend Aina Davidson. Davidson’s friendship becomes especially important when Bergman receives a frightening “stalking” letter. Then one of Bergman’s patients dies of what looks like suicide. It’s proven to be murder though and when she becomes a suspect, Bergman is sure that someone is trying to ruin her practice and probably her life. Through it all she depends on Davisdon and it’s obvious that the two have a strong bond although they’re quite different. Bergman, who is also grieving the loss of her husband Stefan, drinks a lot more wine than she should. But in this novel, wine isn’t just a way of killing Bergman’s emotional pain. It’s also a bond between her and Davidson:
“Sometimes Aina stays with me instead of spending the weekend in the noisy bars of Södermalm in the company of men whose names she quickly forgets. We eat mussles cooked in wine, drink lots of cheap white wine, and talk about our patients or Aina’s guys – or about nothing in particular.”
In this scene, wine adds to a warm picture of a strong friendship.
Whether it’s a fine vintage or plonk, wine is an important part of life for a lot of people. Little wonder it’s so common in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, as you can see, there’s a nicely chilled bottle of Chardonnay waiting for me. Cheers! :-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.