When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?*

An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about tea. Yes, tea. If you think about it, tea’s played an important role in history and politics for centuries. And that’s to say nothing of its role in economics, sociology, and lots more. Plenty of people swear by tea’s medicinal qualities, too.

With all of this going for it, it’s not surprising at all that crime fiction is steeped with tea and tea shops. And, of course, there are myriad scenes where a character makes tea at home. There are far too many references for me to mention in this one post, but here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to Cora Lansquenet. When Cora’s brother, Richard Abernathie, dies, the rest of the Abernethie clan, including Cora, attend his funeral. At the gathering, Cora blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, several members of the family begin to wonder whether Cora was right. Then Cora herself is murdered the next day. Now, it seems quite clear that Cora must have been right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks for Hercule Poirot’s help in finding out the truth about these two deaths, and Poirot agrees. In the process, he and Mr. Entwhistle get to know the Abernethie family – all of whom were very much in need of the money that their patriarch left. They also meet Cora’s companion, Miss Gilchrest. Here’s what she says about her background:

‘‘When my little teashop failed – such a disaster – it was the war, you know. A delightful place. I called it the Willow Tree and all the china was blue willow pattern – sweetly pretty-  and the cakes really good – I’ve always had a hand with cakes and scones.’’

To Miss Gilchrest’s mind, keeping a teashop is the ‘essence of gentility.’ Certainly, tea shops like the one she had are woven into the culture in a lot of towns and villages – and stories about them.

There’s a very interesting example of a tea ceremony in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Tokyo Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to the team that investigates the death of an unknown man whose body is found under a train. At first, it’s difficult to find out who the victim was, but after some slow, patient work, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. Since the trail may lead to the man’s home town, Imanishi travels there. One of the people he interviews is Kirihara Kojuro, who knew the victim for years, and who’s been in town for a very long time. Kirihara is a traditionalist, so he formally invites Imanishi into his home, and serves him tea, using the traditional ritual, in a room set aside for the purpose. It’s an interesting look at the Japanese way of drinking tea. And, as it happens, Kirihara has some interesting information and perspective to share.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. Our best knowledge is that tea was invented and first drunk in China. So, as you can imagine, the custom of drinking tea is an integral part of life in Shanghai, and there are many tea shops, stands, and so on. There are plenty of scenes, too, that have such places as backgrounds. For instance, in Enigma of China, Chen is looking into the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. He’d recently been arrested in connection with a corruption scandal, and at first, it’s believed he committed suicide rather than face the public shame of a trial. But Chen isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and quietly starts to ask questions. One of his leads is a man named Melong, who runs an online watchdog group. The government monitors such groups very carefully, and Melong wants to keep a low profile. So, rather than come to the police station, he meets Chen in a local tea shop:

‘The waitress came into the room carrying a thick tea menu and long-billed bronze kettle.
Chen ordered ginseng oolong, and Melong chose Pu’er, the Yunan tea.
‘Enjoy your tea,’ the waitress said, bringing out the tea leaves from drawers in the table, putting each into a teapot, then pouring hot water from a kettle into their respective pots. ‘Snacks, which are on the house, are also listed on the menu.’’

Melong is an interesting character, and the scene shows the importance of the local tea shop for finding out information.

Tea also has a very long history in India. We see that, for instance, in Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, which takes place in Kolkata/Calcutta. In it, PI Reema Ray investigates the murder of a gourmet food importer named Prakash Agarwal. As it turns out, Ray had interviewed Agarwal as a part of her ‘day job’ working for a lifestyle magazine called Face. So, she remembers him (not very fondly), and his widow. Now, Mrs. Agarwal has asked Ray to find out what happened to him. And it turns out that there are plenty of suspects. Agarwal was not ethical in his marriage, his business, or much of anything else, and he made plenty of enemies. There’s an interesting scene in which Ray recalls her interview with the victim. On the surface, it’s a very pleasant interview, with gourmet tea served, and so on. But it makes her very uneasy, and the fine quality of the tea doesn’t do much to lift the suspense.

Of course, tea isn’t always soothing and ‘civil’ anyway. Just ask Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, who are regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. They work in Chapman’s bakery, and live in the same building. Their dream is to become television stars, and whenever there’s a bit part on any show, they audition. So, for Kylie and Gossamer, staying thin is critical. That’s why, in Devil’s Food, they’re so interested when they hear about a new diet tea that’s supposed to help in quick weight loss. Instead of helping them lose weight, though, the tea poisons them. Now, Chapman and her friend, Meroe, have to find out what, exactly, the poison is, so that they can help Kylie and Gossamer.

And, no discussion of tea shops and tea in crime fiction could possibly be complete without a mention of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is the owner of Thyme and Seasons, an herb shop that includes special herbal teas. She is also the joint owner of Thyme for Tea, a teashop that’s built behind her herb shop. Bayles lives and works in the small town of Pecan Springs, Texas, which is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. Bayles gets involved in more than one mystery because she’s ‘plugged in’ to the local network.

See what I mean? Tea has been an essential part of many cultures for thousands of years. So, it’s no wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. It’s even featured on several excellent book blogs, such as Bitter Tea and Mystery, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the kettle’s boiling…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Lovely Rita. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Matsumoto Seichō, Qiu Xiaolong, Susan Wittig Albert

19 responses to “When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?*

  1. Pingback: When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Margot, thanks so much for mentioning my blog in this context. I do love tea, hot or cold or in-between. I just finished reading DEATH OF A RED HEROINE by Qiu Xiaolong, and it also had many mentions of tea and tea drinking.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your fine blog, Tracy. I learn from it every time I visit. I’m glad you’ve had a chance to read Death of a Red Heroine; I think it’s an excellent book. And you’re right; there are several mentions of tea and tea drinking in it.

  3. Funnily enough, I used to think of the US as a nation of almost exclusively coffee drinkers and was always a little surprised to come across lots of fictional (and actual) tea-drinkers. In Britain, especially England, tea is the cure for all ills, which is used in Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins to bring together the heroine Iris and the victim Miss Froy, when they go off for a cup of tea to help Iris recover from sunstroke. The label of the tea packet also plays a role in the plot…

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, FictionFan, how many tea drinkers there are in the US, considering how popular coffee is. From my experiences in the UK, I’ve seen plenty of use of tea for, well, everything (e.g. Got the sack? Cuppa. Feeling sick? Cuppa. Near-miss almost-accident? Cuppa). Thanks for mentioning Ethel Lina White’s work, too. I must spotlight one of her novels and I still haven’t!

      • Spade & Dagger

        That’s my UK life exactly – whatever the problem make a ‘nice cup of tea’, and in keeping with tradition it’s made at home with tea leaves in a teapot. Annoyingly I’m sure I’ve read many stories featuring tea (including a historical mystery featuring a tea carrying clipper ship), but absolutely no titles come to mind (apart from Miss Matty’s tea shop in Cranford) – I’ll have to put the kettle on instead 🙂

        • There you go, Spade & Dagger. A nice cup of tea is great for jogging the memory. 🙂 – You’re right, of course, that there are many, many stories where tea and tea shops are involved. I think it shows just how ingrained tea and tea drinking are in many cultures.

  4. Col

    Not too much tea in my reading – a bit of Bitter Tea in my blog visiting!

  5. Lovely topic, Moira, and I must point out that a cup of tea can also be a very dangerous thing, as readers of Agatha Christie well know . . .

    • Yes, indeed, Christine! It certainly can. But, that’s part of what I love about Christie’s work. She was able to turn something as comforting as a cup of tea into something quite different…

      Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Kathy D.

    An ode to tea! I love tea also, hot and cold. I drink it hot in the cold weather and cold in the hot weather. And I so like that in Britain, a cup of tea is the panacea for everything as is pointed out here. Even when police officers visit suspects or witnesses, they are offered a cup of tea. No matter what earthshaking event happens, the kettle is turned on and the mugs set out. Often there are biscuits which I find a wonderful custom.
    Glad that you also mentioned that tea is part of the culture of China and India, of course.
    I have a friend whose family is from Mumbai. He carries around teabags of his favorite tea from India. And we have discussed favorite teas a few times.
    Tea drinkers are very particular about what they drink.
    My neighbor is from England and if he runs out of tea, he comes to my house to borrow some tea, as he knows I drink the real stuff and not weak tea.
    I start every day with a strong cup of tea. I can’t do anything without it.

    • You’re not alone, Kathy. Plenty of people all over the world wouldn’t dream of starting the day without a cup of tea. And there are some fine varieties out there, too. It really is a part of all sorts of different cultures.

  7. Kathy D.

    I wonder what the global figures are for coffee vs. tea drinkers? My father had coffee for breakfast and tea after dinner. He and my mother would drink tea them. I hadn’t discovered its wonderfulness at that point.

  8. In Christie’s Sad Cypress there is the fatal snack lunch: fishpaste sandwiches and a nice pot of tea. And then someone is dead. Was it the tea, was it the fishpaste? One of my favourite of her books…

    • That one is an excellent example of the sort of role that tea plays in the genre, Moira. And I think it’s quite well-written, too. I don’t wonder you like it so well.

  9. neeru

    Very kind of you to mention my blog, Margot. Thanks a lot. And yes, tea is the perfect companion to a bookish murder.

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