They Told Me to Diet*

DietingThis time of year brings with it all sorts of holiday gatherings and parties. That means, of course, all sorts of scrumptious food that you don’t find at other times of the year. And that’s probably a good thing, when you consider how easy it is to indulge more than you should.

It’s all enough to make you absolutely determined that this coming year will be the year you get back into shape. If you do make that promise to yourself, you’re not alone. A lot of people start setting their goals for the new year at this time. A lot of crime-fictional characters do the same thing (or, more often, are pushed into the same thing), and it’s interesting to see just how human they are as they go about it.

For example, in one sub-plot of John Mortimer’s short story Rumpole and the Boat People, criminal lawyer Horace Rumpole visits Dr. MacClintock at the behest of his wife Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed. The doctor suggests that Rumpole might do well to lose some weight:

‘‘Just two or three stone, Rumpole, that’s all you have to lose.’ Hilda was warming to her latest theme, that there was too much Rumpole.’

The diet isn’t all that appealing, at least to Rumpole:

‘‘No fat, of course.’… ‘Because it makes you fat. No meat, too rich in protein. No bread or potatoes, too many calories. No pastries, puddings, sweetmeats or sugar. No biscuits. No salt on the food. Steer clear of cheese. I don’t recommend fruit to my patients because of its acid qualities. Eggs are perfectly all right if hard-boiled.’’

Needless to say, Rumpole is not particularly pleased about this diet. Hilda suggests that they take a seaside holiday to make things a bit easier, and since she must be obeyed, Rumpole accedes. It doesn’t turn out to be a peaceful trip, though, as Rumpole gets involved in the case of a man who has drowned – or has he??

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel will know that he enjoys his food and his whisky (or pint). In one plot thread of Ruling Passion, he isn’t feeling well and finally visits a doctor. As you can imagine, the doctor immediately puts Dalziel on a diet and on the proverbial wagon. So he’s not at all in the best of tempers as he and Peter Pascoe investigate a string of home invasions. Of course, this is only the third in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and fans will know that Dalziel doesn’t exactly stay on the culinary straight and narrow path…

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri enjoys his food. In fact, his wife Rumpi’s nickname for him is ‘Chubby.’ She’s always concerned about his weight, and he doesn’t care much for her pestering him. So in The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, he decides to do something about it. He gets ZeroCal, a diet formula that, according to its maker,

‘…absorbs fat molecules and converts them into a form the human system doesn’t absorb.’

Convinced that he’ll be able to lose weight without changing his regimen, Puri makes a mechanical ‘adjustment’ to his wife’s bathroom scale so she won’t annoy him as he’s starting with his new pills. As you can imagine, things don’t turn out the way he plans…

Puri isn’t the only one who gets family pressure about his diet. So does Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Police Inspector Erlendur. He doesn’t have a young family, or even a spouse to come home to, so he frequently eats food that’s not very good for him. In one plot thread of Jar City, his adult daughter Eva Lind comes to visit. Although she’s hardly a model of good health and a nutritious diet, she makes a very tasty homemade stew one night that reminds Erlendur of what good food is like. Later in the novel, he admits to Eva Lind that he’s been having some chest pains, but doesn’t want to see a doctor. Here’s her response:

‘‘Hang on, you’ve got chest pains, you smoke like a chimney, you live on deep-fried junk food and refuse to get yourself looked at.’’

It’s not spoiling the story to say that, although Erlendur doesn’t really adopt a fully healthy lifestyle, he does visit the doctor. In this case, it’s interesting to see how Erlendur and his daughter have very similar attitudes towards their own and each other’s health.

And then there’s Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s DI Hazel Micallef of the Port Dundas, Ontario, Police. She lives with her mother, Emily, who still gets concerned about her daughter’s well-being, despite the fact that Hazel is in her early sixties. And she shows that concern in the way she manages (or tries to!) Hazel’s diet. Here’s an example from The Calling:

‘Hazel smelled bacon. ‘Eat,’ said her mother.
‘I’ll wait for the bacon.’
‘No meat for you, my girl, this is for me.’
Hazel stared down at the anemic omelet on the plate. ‘This isn’t food for a grown woman, Mother,’ she said.
‘Protein. And fiber. That’s your breakfast. Eat it.’ She stared at her daughter until she picked up a fork.’

Hazel finds ways to eat what she wants, at least sometimes, but it’s interesting to see how her mother manages what she eats at home.

Keeping to a healthy diet at this time of year isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not always fun. But it’s better than having to start from the very beginning when the new year starts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a piece of chocolate. What?! It’s just the one piece. Ooh, but wait, there’s the kind with macadamias in it…  😉


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Sherman and Lou Busch’s Little Butterball.


Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Inger Ash Wolfe, John Mortimer, Michael Redhill, Reginald Hill, Tarquin Hall

28 responses to “They Told Me to Diet*

  1. Poor old Rumpole! But then again, poor old She Who Must Be Obeyed too!! You’ve put me in the mood to dig out the old series with Leo McKern now… and maybe have a chocolate or two while watching…

    Or three.

    • 😆 I can’t think of a better accompaniment to the Rumpole series than a chocolate (or more than one…), FictionFan. And Leo McKern was great in that role, wasn’t he? And yes, you sometimes wonder which of the Rumpoles has more to put up with in that marriage…

  2. I always have problems with sweets in December. The rest of the year I can avoid them more easily but this time of year there is so much of it put out at at work.

    I seem to remember that Inspector Barnaby in Caroline Graham’s books is often watching what he eats

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. Barnaby does his share of eating out because his darling wife Joyce is, well, not a natural chef, let’s just say. So he does have to be careful. Good memory and thanks for filling in the gap.
      I find it hard to resist sweet treats, too, at this time of year. As you say, they’re always out in the office. And wherever you go, people have candy dishes or sweet trays out. Not good for the waistline…

  3. It is years since I read Rumpole and of course I’m a huge fan of Andy Dalziel but I think I preferred him on the food and off the wagon!!

    • I like him better that way, too, Cleo. Certainly he’s easier to be around when he’s eating and drinking the way he wants! And you know, I need to re-read some more of the Rumpole series, myself…

  4. I was never a big sweets person, except for pie and ice cream. They’re my weakness. Around the holidays it’s always so hard to resist having that ONE piece. Honestly, I can’t recall any crime books that dealt with this, but from your examples I can see how much a diet could add to the characterization.

    • I think that whole diet thing can really add interest to a character, Sue, and add some tension in relationships, too, if that’s what the author wants. You’re right, too, that it really is hard to say ‘no’ to that one small piece of cake/pie/chocolate/whatever. Especially if you’re a guest in someone’s home. And there’s that ‘just one bite’ syndrome if you’re the host cleaning up after a gathering…

  5. Ahem, yes, hard not to think about it at this time of year … 🙂 In Hilary Waugh’s SLEEP LONG, MY LOVE the lead detective, Fred Fellows, is trying to lose weight but is clearly only losing the battle but it is nicely handled, which i really appreciated (and sympathised with)

    • I know the feeling, Sergio! Yes, this is the time of year when it’s so easy to succumb to temptation. And your suggestion is a perfect example of that, so thanks 🙂

  6. Col

    I will have to read a Hill – Dalziel book one of these days, perhaps something to eat first though….

  7. Surely Macadamias are one of your five a day 😉

  8. Margot, “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken” sounds very interesting. I like the title, especially since butter chicken is such a popular dish in India. It’s also a very high fat food.

    • I think Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series is quite good, Prashant. And one of the things I like about it is the authentic look it seems to give about life in Delhi, and about people’s lifestyles. That includes butter chicken, which I admit I’ve never eaten, but which really sounds tasty.

  9. Kathy D.

    Well, gee, I’d be suspicious of anyone in the U.S. or Europe who doesn’t consider chocolate to be a major food group. It seems to be a part of writers’ stress relievers or energy boosts: tea or coffee with chocolate.
    It works for me for about three hours.

  10. I ask the Rex Stout experts: did Nero Wolfe ever try to diet? It seems unlikely, though surely he needed to. But then with all that great food being provided in his own kitchen…

    • Interesting question, Moira. I believe Wolfe does diet (I seem to remember it from Not Dead Enough, and I think there are a couple of other stories, too, that refer to him dieting). True Stout experts, please correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. Other than the occasion mentioned by SteveHL, the only “dieting” I can remember was when Wolfe would be counting (and attempting to limit) the number of beers he drank in a day, because he loved good beer and it affected his weight. Can’t point to specific books or stories though.

    Oh, I forgot… He also dieted and exercised during WWII when Archie was in the military, because he and Fritz wanted to join the military. In one of the novellas, I believe.

  12. I wish you wouldn’t use that disturbing word in your posts, Margot: “diet.”

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