Category Archives: Anthony Bidulka

It Only Takes a Moment*

TIme PhenomenaIt’s surprising how hard it can be to gauge time. Sometimes something seems to go on forever, but only lasts a few moments or less. So it can be difficult to guess how much time has gone by, especially when one’s under stress. Any investigator will tell you that that can make witness statements notoriously inaccurate. But that ‘bending’ of time does seem like a real phenomenon. And we certainly see it in crime fiction. There are dozens of examples; I’ll just offer a few.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, Rachel Innes plans to spend the summer at Sunnyside, a beautiful country house she’s rented. With her will be her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude. At first, all goes well enough, but soon, some strange things begin to happen. It all begins with odd noises and a few other eerie events. But it takes a deadly turn one night when Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside, is shot. Piecing together what happened isn’t easy. The shooting wakes Rachel up, and it only takes her a few moments to give the alarm. But that’s all that’s needed for the shooter to escape. It’s one of those cases where one might think that something ought to take a lot longer than it does. The fear that’s only natural when one hears a shot doesn’t help matters.

There’s an interesting question of how long something takes in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s drawn into an investigation, though, when Flora Ackroyd asks him to help clear her fiancé Ralph Paton of suspicion of murder. Flora’s uncle, Roger Ackroyd, has been stabbed, and all of the evidence points to Paton. Flora is convinced he is innocent, though, and Poirot agrees to at least look into the matter. One of the questions is, of course, when the murder occurred (and by extension, who had the opportunity at that time). As the police work to establish exactly what happened and exactly what everyone was doing, it becomes clear just how very little time it actually takes to go into a room, stab someone, plant evidence and leave. It really only takes a very few minutes. And in this case, that means that more than one person could have had the chance to commit the crime.

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas finds Saskatoon PI Russell Quant hired to go on a cruise. Wealthy and influential Charity Wiser claims that one of her family members is trying to kill her, and she wants to know which one. Her idea is that if Quant gets to know the various suspects, he’ll be able to ‘vet’ them and figure out who the would-be assassin is. To that end, she has Quant accompany the family on a cruise on her private ship The Dorothy. Quant’s not overly impressed with Charity Wiser, but he’s also not one to turn down a fee and a luxury cruise. The trip starts and little by little, Quant gets the chance to interact with several members of the Wiser clan. He still hasn’t established who the culprit is when The Dorothy makes a stop in Tunis. Several of the passengers, Quant among them, go ashore for some shopping and a chance to soak up the local culture. The time comes to return to the yacht, and Charity can’t be found. After only a few minutes of searching for her, Quant discovers that he’s lost in the shopping medina, among a maze of winding alleys and shops. He finally finds his client, but not in time to prevent an attack on her that lasts only a minute or two, but seems longer. She manages to get away relatively unscathed, but that’s hardly the end of Quant’s adventures. And the whole thing only takes moments.

It only takes a few moments for thirteen-year-old Katie Pine to disappear in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow.  One September day, she and two friends go to a traveling fair near their home at Algonquin Bay. They try out a few of the booths, and Katie decides she wants to win a large stuffed panda at the bowling pins game. Her friends take a few minutes to go have their fortunes told. By the time they come back, Katie has disappeared. No-one saw her leave, and no-one has seen her since. Five months later, her body is found in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. John Cardinal, of the Algonquin Bay Police, was assigned to the case, so he’s especially upset to find Katie was murdered. He re-opens the case and works to trace her last movements. It’s disconcerting to know how little time it takes for a young girl to go missing from a large, crowded fair.

And then there’s Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. One afternoon, Cassandra James, who is in the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, goes to the home of Department Head Margaret Joplin. Her plan is to pick up some student exam papers and then be on her way. When she gets there, though, she notices to her shock that the student papers are scattered all over, with many of them in Joplin’s swimming pool. James’ first thoughts are about the terrible consequences of such careless handling of the papers. Student degrees are at stake, and so is the career of whoever is responsible if the exam papers are permanently lost. All of these thoughts seem to take some time, but really,
 

‘All of this flashed through my mind in the time it took me to run in through the conservatory door and bellow for Margaret.’
 

As it turns out, there’s a very good reason the exam papers are everywhere and Joplin is nowhere to be found. She’s drowned in the pool. At first it looks like a terrible accident; she hit her head, then fell into the pool. But James soon comes to suspect something more…

It may seem as though something is lasting forever, but it’s surprising how often it lasts only a minute or two. That sense of time passing more slowly than it really does is part of the reason it’s sometimes so hard to pin down when things happen and how long they take. Ask anyone who’s investigated a crime.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Herman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Giles Blunt, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Is There Life After Breakfast?*

BreakfastIt’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it’s not hard to see why people have that view. After all, breakfast gets you going in the morning. Breakfast is also a really useful meal for fiction writers.

For one thing, breakfast is a very culturally contextual meal (they all are, really). In some cultures, and contexts, a heavier breakfast is the custom. In others, one eats a light breakfast, and then a heavier lunch or dinner. What’s more, the foods that one eats for breakfast vary by culture.

Breakfast is also a very individual sort of habit. Each of us is a bit different with respect to what and how much we eat in the morning. For the writer, this means that breakfast can be a very effective way to show what a character is like, both culturally and as an individual.

Breakfast can be the setting for effective scenes, too. Those scenes can add to the tension of a story, or to the portraits of the characters. So it’s little wonder that breakfast is woven into a lot of crime fiction.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her Hercule Poirot is a chocolate-and-croissant sort of breakfast eater. He’s not much of a one for the traditional, larger ‘Englishman’s breakfast.’ Just that simple fact about him shows readers something of his cultural background.

Christie uses breakfast scenes quite frequently to build story contexts, too. For example, the first chapter of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is titled, Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table. In it, Dr. James Sheppard, who is the local GP for the village of King’s Abbot, comes home after a very early call. His sister Caroline, who keeps house for him, joins him for a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast. At that time, and in that place, breakfast wasn’t a matter of grabbing a protein bar. As the two are talking, we learn about the death of one of the village’s residents, Mrs. Ferrars. That conversation sets the stage for what’s to come next in the novel – the stabbing death of retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd. There are other Christie novels, too (Dead Man’s Folly comes to my mind) in which a breakfast scene gives readers both context and character development.

Some authors use breakfast places and scenes to build a sense of local culture. That’s what Craig Johnson does in his Walt Longmire series. Longmire lives in the small town of Durant, Wyoming. He lives alone and doesn’t do a lot of cooking for himself. But he doesn’t need to, because Durant is home to the Busy Bee Café, owned and operated by Dorothy Caldwell. The Bee, as it’s called, is where the locals go for pancakes, eggs, and other ‘homestyle’ cooking. And coffee. That sort of breakfast food reflects both the small-town context for this series, and the local culture.

Breakfast choices are also very much reflections of the individual. For instance, in D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories, we learn that Heatherington’s breakfast preference is an almond croissant. That fits well with his lifestyle (he’s not really the ‘outdoors, strenuous exercise’ type) and his age (he’s – erm – no longer twenty). On the other hand, his detective partner Delilah Delibes, who is much younger and more energetic, prefers a fried breakfast. Not only do their breakfast conversations give readers background for the mysteries, but they also show readers a bit of what these two people are like.

There’s also Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans will know, he’s a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who enjoys his food. His personality is reflected in his breakfast choices, too. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel has gone to the US to follow up on a long-ago murder case that’s stirred up a lot of interest. In this scene, American journalist Linda Steele invites him to breakfast:
 

‘‘I’ll not quarrel with that. Can I get bacon and eggs? I don’t suppose they do black pudding.’
‘Black…what?’
‘Never mind. I like me bacon crisp enough to shave with, and me eggs like a parrot’s eye.’
Linda Steele translated the order into American and the waitress replied in kind.
‘She wants to know if you want syrup.’
‘No, thanks. Marmalade.’
‘With your eggs?’
‘With my toast! Bloody hell, you’ll be offering me kippers and custard next.’’
 

This bit not only shows Dalziel’s personality, but it also shows gives an interesting cultural perspective.

People’s breakfast choices often become a part of their daily life, too, so that it’s very hard to change them. For example, in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we learn that a big change is coming to the Cumbria Constabulary:
 

‘The senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer.’
 

The idea is that officers should develop healthier eating habits. But that change is certainly not universally accepted. The series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In this novel, her second-in-command is Nick Lowther, who
 

‘…still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long-ago poisoning.’
 

Scarlett’s friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter isn’t much of a fan of the new healthy eating initiative either. In The Serpent Pool, she and Scarlett agree to meet for breakfast at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar. Larter chooses
 

‘…eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding.’
 

She’s not one to be dictated to by policies.

Breakfast choices can be influenced by generation, too. For example, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t eat a big breakfast as a rule. But his mother Kay sees things differently. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her adult life cooking heavy-duty farm breakfasts with a Ukrainian flair. So when she comes to stay with her son in Flight of Aquavit, there’s an interesting generation clash about what ‘counts’ as breakfast.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way that breakfast choices show us what characters and local cultures are like. Some people simply eat cereal (I see you, Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson). Others don’t eat breakfast at all. Still others (you see this in a lot of classic/Golden Age novels) have breakfast served in bed. Sometimes small details like that add depth to characters and contexts to stories in ways that a lot of words wouldn’t. And let’s face it: breakfast resonates with most of us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Ray Davies song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

My Hometown*

Fictional and Real SettingsIf you’re kind enough to read this blog regularly, you’ll know that my Joel Williams novels take place in the fictional US town of Tilton (Pennsylvania). It’s a small town that hosts Tilton University, where Williams teaches. As a writer, there’s a lot to like about creating a completely fictional town.

For one thing (and I admit, I like this), the writer can create whatever sort of place she or he wants. Who’s to say there isn’t an organic market on a certain corner? Or that the library isn’t five blocks away from one of the local churches? Or…or…or…  Along with this goes the freedom the writer has to make up street names, businesses and so on.

I’m in very good company, too. Fans of Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series will know that Bruno is Chief of Police in the fictional small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Throughout the course of the series, readers get to know several of the people who live in St. Denis. We learn about the different businesses, the street names, and so on. St. Denis has become, you might say, real.

So has Louise Penny’s Three Pines, a fictional small town in rural Québec. If you’ve read Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, you’ll know that Gamache is with the Sûreté du Québec. Beginning with Still Life, in which he and his team investigate a murder in Three Pines, Gamache spends a great deal of time there. In fact, he and his wife Reine-Marie retire to Three Pines. And it’s easy to see why. As the series has gone on, Penny has painted a vivid picture of a peaceful (well, sometimes) small town. Fans know who the ‘regulars’ are, and where one eats, shops, worships, and so on. The town has become so real to readers that a lot of people look up Three Pines on maps. But it isn’t there, of course.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington series also takes place in a fictional town – the village of Tuesbury. Heatherington is a retired milliner who still does occasional work to order; he’s converted his shed into a workshop, and tries to keep his business discreet, so that the council doesn’t have to hear of it officially. Heatherington is also an amateur detective. His insights prove very useful, since he’s lived in Tuesbury for a very long time and more or less knows everyone there. Through Heatherington’s eyes, we get to know the other local residents. Nelson also paints a verbal portrait of Tuesbury’s businesses, street names, topography, and so on. It’s a modern English small town, and Nelson shows us clearly what life is like there.

There are plenty of other authors, too, who have created fictional settings for their stories (I know, I know, fans of Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels and of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels). And there’s a lot to be said for doing that. But you don’t get a free pass when you create a fictional town. For one thing, the setting has to be credible. Tilton, for instance, is a university town. It’s not huge. There are no skyscrapers, underground trains, or nearby airports. It simply wouldn’t make sense to have them there.

The setting has to be believable in other ways, too. Things such as geography and climate have to be authentic. Winters are cold and snowy in the part of Québec where Louise Penny’s Three Pines is located, and that’s depicted faithfully. To take an extreme example, you wouldn’t be likely to find palm trees or olives growing naturally there.

It’s also important to be authentic in terms of cultural realities. Speech styles, customs, and other aspects of life have to be depicted faithfully, too. To give one example, the custom of market day that we see in Martin Walker’s novels isn’t followed in the same way in the US. Towns such as Tilton would more likely have a farmer’s market. It’s a similar tradition (but not identical), where local farmers, bakers and artisans gather once or twice a week (it’s sometimes less frequent than that). People then come to choose fresh produce, meat and so on. All of this is easy enough to create if the writer’s from the area where the fictional town is located. It’s more difficult otherwise. In those cases, the writer would have to do plenty of research, live in an area for a long time, or find some other way to make sure those subtle (but important) details are realistic.

Some authors choose to set their stories in actual places. As a matter of fact, that’s the case for the standalone I’m currently writing. When you set a story in an actual place, you are spared the time that it takes to create street names, locations of shops, and the rest of it. So in that sense, your work’s done for you.

But setting a story in an actual place brings with it other kinds of work. Anyone who lives in or near the place where a novel is set will know that setting and local culture. So the writer has to be accurate about place names, businesses and landmarks. That takes research (or, again, living in a place). In that sense, the writer can take fewer liberties.

Colin Dexter, for instance, set his Inspector Morse series in Oxford. I’ll admit I’ve never lived there. But people who know the place have vouched for the authenticity of Dexter’s stories. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney stories are set in different parts of Thailand. The Half Child, for instance, takes place mostly in Pattaya. Again, I’ve never lived in that part of Southeast Asia, but Savage has. And her familiarity is reflected in the stories. What’s more, she’s done the research needed to ‘fill in the gaps’ we all have in our knowledge. There are many, many other authors who’ve chosen to set their novels and series in actual places. Michael Connelly, Christine Poulson, Anthony Bidulka and Sara Paretsky are just a few entries on that list.

No matter which choice the author makes, there’s no such thing as a free pass when it comes to depicting the setting and context. Do you have a preference when you read? If you do, do you like fictional or real locations better? If you’re a writer, which have you chosen and why?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bruce Springsteen song.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky

Obeys All the Rules*

Unwritten RulesEach social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.

When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.

One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.

We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.

The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.

In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:
 

‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’
 

Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.

There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face.  Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.

In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts it to Rafferty:
 

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’
 

On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.

Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, Malla Nunn, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall