If there’s one thing this season brings, it’s….. lots of food. There are all kinds of delicious foods associated with the different holidays that come at this time of year; it’s enough to make you swear to take up an exercise regime for the rest of your life. But as scrumptious as holiday treats are, they can also be dangerous. And no, I’m not talking about the calories. A quick look at crime fiction is all that’s needed to show that holiday treats should be taken with extreme caution.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings Sherlock Holmes an interesting case. He discovered a hat and a goose lying on the street after a scuffle between an unknown man and some hooligans. When Peterson’s wife prepared the goose for cooking it, she discovered a valuable jewel in its craw. Holmes uses clues from the hat to trace its owner, and soon finds out the story. Once he traces the goose back to its breeder, he learns that the breeder’s brother had stolen the jewel and stuffed it into the goose’s craw for lack of a better hiding place. Unfortunately, he didn’t remember which goose had the jewel, and it ended up in different hands.
Very well, then, the Christmas goose may not be as innocent as it seems. What about traditional plum pudding? In Agatha Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (AKA The Theft of the Royal Ruby), Hercule Poirot is persuaded against his better judgement to spend Christmas at Kings Lacey, an English country house owned by the Lacey family. Ostensibly he is there to experience an old-fashioned English Christmas. But his real purpose is to recover a very valuable ruby that was stolen from a Middle Eastern prince. Poirot’s not happy about staying in a drafty country house (What? No central heating?), but he goes to King’s Lacey. On Christmas Day, the family has a full-scale Christmas feast, complete with plum pudding at the end. Everyone is joking around about who got the various symbols in the pudding when Colonel Lacey begins on his portion. To his shock, it contains a very unusual ‘surprise.’ And that night, someone raids Poirot’s room. It’s now clear that someone else has the same goal he does. But as the saying goes, Poirot has a few tricks of his own, and in the end, he finds out what happened to the pudding. He also finds out the truth about the ruby.
Any crime fiction fan can tell you that festive candy is dangerous. Consider, just as one example, Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. In that novel, Roger Sheringham and the other members of the Crimes Circle club try to find out the truth behind a bizarre case of poisoning. Wealthy Sir Eustace Pennefather gets a complimentary box of chocolates as a marketing ploy. Not much of a chocolate eater himself, and not too fond of that approach to advertising, he gives the box to an acquaintance Graham Bendix. Bendix in turn gives the box to his wife Joan. A few hours after they share the chocolate, Joan dies of what turns out to be poison. Her husband is taken ill too, but survives, since he didn’t eat as much of the chocolate. So the question before the Crimes Circle is: who poisoned the chocolate? Related to that is the question of whether Pennefather or one (or both) of the Bendixes were the original targets.
Very well, then: no goose, no plum pudding, no chocolate. What about eggnog? Not so fast. Just think what happens in The Tragedy of Y, the second in the ‘Barnaby Ross’ (a pseudonym used by the Ellery Queen ‘Queen team’) Drury Lane series. The body of an unidentified man is found by a fishing boat. On his body is a suicide note identifying the victim as ‘Y’ (York) Hatter. The police are working on figuring out the truth about Hatter’s death when tragedy strikes the Hatter family again. As it is, the entire family is a little odd; they’re even referred to as ‘the mad Hatters.’ But when the victim’s grandson Jackie drinks a glass of cyanide-laced eggnog intended for his step-aunt Louisa, things get even more strange in the family. The doctor treating Jackie contacts the police, and wealthy retired actor Drury Lane gets involved in investigating the poisoning. His main question is: who wanted to poison Louisa? There’s also the question of whether (and how) this is related to York Hatter’s death and to a later murder that occurs.
Well, what if you avoid all of the Christmas treats altogether? That certainly may lower your risk, but it’s no guarantee. Even if you celebrate other holidays, you may not be entirely safe. In Sharon Kahn’s Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Choir, for instance, the choir of Temple Rita, in Eternal, Texas, is planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies. They’ve been invited to participate in the first Interdenominational ChoirFest in Lake Louise, Canada – a real feather in the proverbial cap. In order to raise funds for the trip, the choir plans a latke promotion. For those who don’t know, latkes are special potato pancakes that are traditionally eaten during Chanukah. They’re not exactly healthy food, but (at least in my opinion) worth every calorie. As part of this promotion, the choir hosts a large latke party that will feature a musical performance. But to everyone’s shock, star soprano Serena Salit suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack. Police Lieutenant Paul Lundy learns that Serena was poisoned, and he’s concerned for his love interest, Ruby Rothman, who’s a member of the temple community and planning to go on the trip. But Ruby believes that the trip will be just the thing to find out who the killer is.
See what I mean? It simply doesn’t pay to overindulge in holiday treats. And besides, you won’t have as much work to do to get back into shape after the season. So do be careful if you accept an invitation. On second thought, you might just be better off going to the gym…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.