Pizza’s Cooking in a Storefront Oven*

PizzaThe culture of eating has changed dramatically over the past decades. One of the biggest changes since the mid-twentieth century has been the increasing popularity of….pizza. That’s right, pizza. Of course, pizza has a long history, but it’s really only since the end of World War II that it’s come into its own as a worldwide phenomenon. Today, as you know, pizza’s available in myriad varieties and styles. You can get upmarket pizza in a restaurant with crystal and cloth, or you can get a cheap frozen pizza and heat it up yourself. And that’s not to mention the booming pizza delivery business. Let’s face it: people love their pizza.

It’s easy to see why, too. Of course there’s the taste. But pizza’s also really convenient, especially if you have it delivered. And there’s something social about sharing a pizza with a group of people. With all of that going for it, it shouldn’t surprise you that pizza plays a big role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of more.

Like many fictional sleuths, Katherine Howell’s Inspector Ella Marconi doesn’t have a lot of free time to cook for herself. As a busy member of the New South Wales Police, she also doesn’t have a lot of time to spend sitting in restaurants eating. So pizza delivery is tailor-made for her needs, as it is for so many other fictional cops. Here’s what she says about it in The Darkest Hour. In this scene, she’s looking for a flyer from a local gourmet pizza place, but can’t find it:

‘Had she thrown it out?
No, she wouldn’t have done that, not even on the worst-scale day. Mushroom pizzas were an important part of life, it was a recognised fact. Or if it wasn’t, she thought it ought to be.’

Pizza lovers everywhere would probably agree.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a member of the Göteborg Police’s Violent Crimes Unit. She is also married to Krister, a very skilled chef who works at a well-regarded upmarket restaurant. Krister does quite a lot of the cooking at home, too. But that doesn’t stop his wife eating her share of pizza. Quite frequently, the members of Huss’ team have evening meetings about cases they’re working. When that happens, they have a standing order at a local pizza delivery place. The only person (besides team members) who is allowed to interrupt those meetings is the receptionist, and then only to let the team know that the pizza has arrived. There are also several scenes in this series where individual team members go to lunch together. Pizza is a staple in those cases too.

And then of course, there’s Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. As those who’ve read this series will know, Salander is not exactly health-conscious when it comes to her diet. And one of the main elements of that diet is Billy’s Pan Pizza. It actually serves her well, as she’s not exactly an extrovert who enjoys dining with others. A frozen pizza that can be heated up easily and eaten at her computer desk allows her the solitude and flexibility she needs to do the research at which she is an expert. Little wonder it’s a staple food for her. It would be nice to know how she manages to stay so slender on a diet like that…

Of course, crime-fictional pizza isn’t just useful as fuel for busy sleuths. Pizza boxes can be handy for forensics experts who may need to get samples for testing. And they have even more inventive uses too. Consider Peter Lovesey’s The Vault. In that novel, a security guard who works at the Roman Baths makes the gruesome discovery of a severed hand during his rounds. As soon as he is able to do so, he goes to the Bath Police to report what he’s found. When he does so, he faces a problem: how to transport his find. He thinks quickly and puts the hand in the pizza box that contained his lunch. As you can imagine, this causes more than a little consternation when he gets to the police station. At first, Superintendent Peter Diamond isn’t exactly overwhelmed. After all, the bones were found beneath Bath Abbey Churchyard. There are any number of reasons for which they might be there, none of which involve a crime. But when the hand turns out to be much more recent – from the 1980s – things begin to take a more sinister turn.

With pizza being as popular as it is, it shouldn’t surprise you that there’s a mystery series devoted to the topic. Chris Cavender’s Pizza Lovers Mysteries features A Slice of Delight, a pizzeria located in Timber Ridge, North Carolina. The restaurant is owned by Eleanor Swift and her sister Maddy, and offers both ‘regular’ pizzas and some gourmet styles. With that context, there are all sorts of possibilities for murder. Customers, vendors, delivery staff and so on all have their individual stories, and they all in some ways touch the lives of the Swift sisters.

That’s part of what can make pizza such a useful tool for authors too. There are so many ways in which clues can be left, characters can interact, the sleuth can get involved and so on. And that’s not to mention the way pizza can be used to give a little character depth too.

As a case in point, there’s a crime novel that uses the job of delivering pizza quite effectively. After all, what better way to put your victim off guard and get as close as you want than to use the guise of delivering a pizza? I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t give author or title. But I’ve always thought that to be particularly clever!

Really, there’s something ‘pizza’ for just about everyone. Whether you prefer upmarket, mushroom, vegetarian, kosher, lots of meat, Hawai’ian style, or something else entirely, there’s probably a pizza out there with your name written on it. Little wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s the doorbell. I think my pizza’s here…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Bouncing Souls’ The Pizza Song.


Filed under Chris Cavender, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Peter Lovesey, Stieg Larsson

26 responses to “Pizza’s Cooking in a Storefront Oven*

  1. Well I certainly read a book in the last year or two where the murderer disguised himself as a pizza delivery guy to get his victims to open the door – author JK? Are we on the same page?

    It’s a good plot device that’s possibly been used on more than one occasion. Another one is the courier disguise, holding a parcel. After all, people love receiving parcels don’t they?!

    • Good point about the courier, Crimeworm! Most people would be likely to open the door to someone with a parcel. As you say, who wouldn’t want a parcel?
      As to the pizza delivery guy, I was originally thinking of another novel/author, but you’re spot on too. Hmmm…this does come up in the genre, doesn’t it? It really is an effective ploy…

  2. Pizza rules, but the use of it in crime fiction seems a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t recall any stories where Marlowe or Nick & Nora call out for a large-with-everything … 🙂 Then again, as you explain in the first paragraph, pizza wasn’t as ubiquitous in our lives in the Thirties and Forties as it is today.

    • Bryan – I couldn’t agree more about pizza 🙂 . And it is fun to imagine Marlowe, Lew Archer or Nick and Nora ordering out for it. But I honestly do see it as a post-war phenomenon more than anything. And at first of course, it was likely only available at restaurants (as opposed to available for delivery). Interesting sociological and culinary history I think.

  3. Keishon

    Yum. I love pizza. Can’t recall seeing this in the crime fiction novels I’ve read. However, I did see it an episode of Justified where the pizza delivery guy was used by a federal fugitive to get closer to his victim.

  4. Margot: Pizza has sustained every litigator in the midst of a trial but the only use of a pizza I could think of by a lawyer was by John Grisham in one of his non-legal mysteries which he called Playing for Pizza involving an American football player going to play in Italy.

    • Bill – I could well imagine that pizza is an essential for litigators who are involved in a trial. It’s a natural for those situations. And thanks for reminding me of Playing For Pizza. That’s one I’ve not read yet, but I’d be interested to see what Grisham’s non-legal mysteries are like.

  5. I have to admit to being stumped today Margot. My brain has gone blank. The detail level to go down to in a novel to remember the pizza is incredible. Your memory is amazing! Great post! And yes, I also love pizza 🙂

  6. I’m the same as Rebecca Bradley, and as ever in awe of your ability to make links!

  7. kathy d.

    I’m so impressed: a whole post about pizza in crime fiction. The amazing facts that are retained and then written about are quite something. That must mean the blogger here loves pizza! That must be it.
    I, too, love pizza, but gave it up years ago due to those awful aging issues like cholesteral, lipids, weight, etc., so I only have a bite here and there. I gave a young man I know a pepperoni pizza for his birthday last year — was he ever happy!
    I haven’t thought of pizzas in mysteries, but do know that along with coffee and doughnuts, it is a major food group for detectives, public and private. What sleuth doesn’t have an empty pizza box in the back seat of his/her car or a few crusts lying around on the car’s floor? I’m sure V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone so imbibe. And male detectives and cops even more so.
    I feel a craving for vegetable-covered pizza coming on, broccoli and mushrooms, however, I’ll try to convince myself that a piece of whole wheat toast with a piece of cheese or turkey or some jam is an adequate substitute, while I stay up all night hoping a pizza will land in my living room.
    What is it about pizza that we so crave? And since Ella Marconi and Irene Huss have it, why can’t I? Not fair! (I’ll even take anchovies, black olives, whatever, just not chicken or pineapple, please!)
    Harry Boxch and Mickey Heller get pizza, too, let’s get real.

    • Kathy – There’s no doubt about it: pizza isn’t exactly low in calories, fat and so on. It’s not something that it’s wise to indulge in too often…
      And yet, so many people do. It’s delicious, it’s convenient, it’s not overly expensive and you can have it delivered in most places. And as you say, there are lots of varieties too, so you can have it made up the way you want. It’s really little wonder that so many fictional sleuths live on it. As you point out, I’ll bet lots of fictional sleuths have pizza boxes in the backs of their cars or in their bins at least sometimes. I still would like to know how they do it without getting really heavy…

  8. You do have an amazing memory, Margot, as one of the above comments pointed out. I can’t think of a crime novel that used pizza as a ploy off the top of my head, but I’ll be on the lookout now!

    • Thank you, Sue 🙂 – It’s interesting how pizza just seems to be woven in to so many modern crime novels. I’ll bet if it had been easily available in Sherlock Holmes’ day, he’d have had plenty!

  9. Patti Abbott

    The first time I really noticed food in a mystery was with the Robert Parker novels. I am sure he wasn’t the first to draw attention to it, but he was the first for me.

  10. Mmm…now I want pizza!! Mushroom and onion please, and hold the dead bodies for half an hour… Of course, I live in the home of the deep-fried pizza – and how I wish I was joking about that! Just what pizza really needs – added fat!

    • FictionFan – Really? Deep-fried pizza? That’s something I’ve never had. Still, for people who don’t care about all that fat, I can see it’d have appeal. Hey, wait!! Save me some of the mushroom-and-onion pizza! 😉

  11. Heartafire

    Well, you are living my dream…a mystery novelist. Wonderful blog and posts!

  12. I love pizza and now, having read this, I think I might cook one this evening for New Years Eve. Great post as usual.

  13. Pizza in mysteries. I never would have thought of that. I just (a couple of weeks ago) finished THE DARKEST HOUR and I remember that scene you mention. I will be reviewing it soonish. I do like Ella Marconi. A pity I have to work so hard to find copies.

    I wonder if Nero Wolfe and Archie ever had pizza?

    • Tracy – I don’t know if they ever did or not. Somehow I doubt that Wolfe did… I’ll be really interested to see what you think of The Darkest Hour – I hope you enjoyed it. Oh, and I agree about the Ella Marconi series. I wish it was easier to find those books too.

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