Just about every town seems to have places where the local people gather. And in cities, different neighbourhoods have their own little cafés or restaurants that attract ‘regulars.’ If you have one of those places near you, then you know how they can add to the richness of an area. They can be good places to catch up on the gossip and meet up with friends. In crime fiction, they’re useful in a number of other ways too. They’re good places to show not tell something about the sleuth’s personal life. They’re also good places for the sleuth to hear things that can be helpful in a given investigation. And for the author, they can be very useful for bringing characters together without it seeming too contrived.
One of best-known of these crime-fictional cafés is Rosie’s, which is a regular haunt for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. The food at Rosie’s would never be confused with gourmet cooking. But for one thing, Millhone is not really particular about her food, and she’d rather eat out than cook. And the atmosphere at Rosie’s is informal and relaxed, which also suits Millhone. Here’s what she says about the place in A is for Alibi:
‘The place appeals to me for a couple of reasons. Not only is it close to my home but it is never attractive to tourists, which means that most of the time it’s half-empty and perfect for private conversations. Then, too, Rosie’s cooking is inventive, a sort of devil-may-care cuisine with a Hungarian twist.’
Millhone sometimes meets clients there, but even when she doesn’t, the scenes at Rosie’s show the reader an interesting side of Millhone’s character.
Also a relaxed and informal local watering hole is the Busy Bee Café, one of the haunts of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. The Bee, as it’s often called, is one of the social hubs of Durant, Wyoming, and Longmire often hears helpful gossip when he’s there. It’s also a good place to meet up with people. The Bee also provides the food for anyone who happens to be in the county jail. Here’s the way it’s described in Death Without Company:
‘The Busy Bee was in a small, concrete-block building that clung to the banks of Clear Creek through the tenacity of its owner and the strength of its biscuits and spiced gravy. Dorothy Caldwell had owned and operated the Bee since Christ had been a cowboy. I [Longmire] ate there frequently and, due to its proximity to the jail, so had our infrequent lodgers.’
The food at the Bee is ‘down home’ comfort food, and Dorothy Caldwell is very accommodating about putting takeaway meals together if Longmire is going out of town. Longmire also knows that if someone calls him while he’s eating there, Dorothy will put the call through. It’s that kind of place.
Another very appealing local gathering place (at least to me) is Colourful Mary’s, a regular stop for Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant is a Saskatoon PI who, because he’s not a cop, often relies on local networks to get information that he needs for his cases. And Colourful Mary’s draws many of Saskatoon’s local residents. Here’s how it’s described in Amuse Bouche:
‘Colourful Mary’s is Saskatoon’s only publicly admitted gay-run restaurant, but over the years it has developed a wide range of loyal clientele…Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’
Colourful Mary’s may be a little more upmarket than the Busy Bee is, but it’s a comfortable, welcoming place. And Quant gets very useful information there at times.
Many of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Three Pines may be small, but it’s got Olivier’s Bistro. In Still Life the bistro is referred to as
‘…the Central Station of Three Pines,’
and that’s an accurate description. The Bistro/ B & B is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, and as Gamache learns early in this series, it is in many ways the heart, soul and social hub of Three Pines. Gamache and his team certainly learn as much from the time they spend there as they do interviewing witnesses. And of course, the food is delicious.
One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Corinna Chapman, a baker who lives and works in a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the businesses in the same building is Café Delicious, run by the Pandamus family. It’s a comfortable sort of place that’s popular with several of the building’s regulars. For instance, Chapman’s assistant Jason Wallace frequently does justice to the food there. Here’s what Chapman says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:
‘There is always good money to be made at Café Delicious by betting how long it is going to take my thin scrap of a Jason to eat his way through three eggs (fried), three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two grilled tomatoes, a stack of toast and two hash browns or potato pancakes, depending on whether Grandma Pandamus or the Hungarian relief cook Kristina is dishing out the food. His record is three minutes…’
Of course, Jason is a teenager. But still…
And then there’s Rusterman’s Restaurant, which Rex Stout fans will know is one of the few restaurants Nero Wolfe visits, and just about the only one he visits with any regularity. And even then it’s only for an occasional meal. And with a chef like Fritz Brenner in his employ, why should Wolfe go out to eat? His willingness to eat at Rusterman’s should tell readers something about the quality of the food there.
There are also several series, including Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, that are based around local haunts. In those cafés and restaurants, we get to meet the ‘regulars’ in the series, and the settings are effective ways for the authors to get the sleuth involved in cases.
Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about local haunts and places to eat have got me feeling a bit hungry. Think I’ll go down the street and see who’s at the café…
Happy Weekend, everyone!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.