There’s an interesting (if small) plot thread in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police. The small French town of St. Denis prides itself on its good food; it is, after all, in the food-famous Périgord. And, for as long as anyone can remember, there’s been a weekly market where the local residents get their fresh bread, cheese, and other items. These people know how to prepare, cook, sell, and store food. So, no-one is exactly pleased that EU inspectors have taken an interest in the market, and plan to apply EU rules to the food that’s bought and sold there. Local Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is sworn to uphold the law; and in most cases, he believes in being law-abiding. At the same time, he’s a gastronome himself, and understands exactly how the citizens he serves feel about the EU health inspectors. So, he looks the other way when a few of the citizens find their own approach to preventing what they see as EU ‘meddling.’
In the main, though, most people agree that public health is a serious and important matter, and that there needs to be a way to ensure that any threats to public health are eliminated. Such inspections are thankless jobs, though. No company wants its operations interrupted, and making sure that everything is up to code can be expensive. And companies, hospitals, and the like don’t want to fail inspections. So, there’s a lot of pressure on anyone in that business.
The San Francisco Department of Health figures into Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. In that novel, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a transplant from Scotland. He’s working on some research for the World Health Organization (WHO) when the city is hit with a number of cases of virulent, flu-like illness. Each case seems to end in death, and doctors are hard-pressed to isolate the cause. Doohan volunteers his services to San Francisco’s Board of Health, and soon finds himself working with Dr. Suzanne Synge, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s soon established that the illness can be traced to people who attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba, so several interested parties (the CDC, the Board of Health, etc..) concentrate their efforts there. Inspections of the food and its handling start, and Doohan soon begins to suspect that this outbreak was deliberate. As he gets closer to the truth behind it, he finds more and more danger for himself.
The CDC also features in Robin Cook’s Outbreak. Dr. Marissa Blumenthal of the CDC is sent to Los Angeles when several patients of the Richter Clinic die. The clinic’s owner, Dr. Rudolph Richter, also succumbs. Blumenthal and the team she works with manage to contain the outbreak, and it seems that the public health isn’t at risk. Then, there’s an outbreak in St. Louis. And another in Phoenix. It now seems clear to Blumenthal that this virus is being spread deliberately. But she doesn’t have much evidence to support herself. Still, she perseveres, and soon finds she’s up against some very dangerous and powerful people who are not afraid to kill.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has to be concerned about her local Health Department’s expectations, because she owns a bakery. By and large, she doesn’t have a bad relationship with the inspection team, although they don’t see eye to eye on Chapman’s approach to vermin control. Along with her ‘house cat’ Horatio, Chapman is owned by Heckle and Jekyll, the feline Rodent Control Officers who roam the bakery at night, making sure that Chapman’s baking supplies are vermin-free. It isn’t exactly what the Health Department pamphlets advise, but it works well, and Chapman’s bakery is successful. Then, in Trick or Treat, there’s an ergot infestation at another, nearby, bakery. The Health Department has to close that bakery until the ergot is removed, and all the other local bakeries, including Chapman’s, also become suspect. It’s hard for Chapman not to be able to go about her baking business. But she understands why the bakery has to close temporarily, and she certainly doesn’t want anyone sickened on her account. It’s among other things an interesting look at how health inspectors work when something goes wrong in a restaurant or other food-selling establishment.
Sometimes, health, food, and other inspectors are fictional targets. For instance, in Donna Leon’s Beastly Things, the body of an unknown man is found in one of Venice’s canals. There’s no identification, and no truly distinctive marks on the body, so at first, it’s hard to determine who the victim was. But Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team eventually identify the man as Andrea Nava. He was a veterinarian who worked part-time at a local slaughterhouse. His job there was to inspect the animals brought in by local farmers, to verify the health of their animals. As Brunetti and his team look into the murder, readers learn about the way slaughterhouse inspections are supposed to work, and how they work in this case.
A few of Carl Hiaasen’s novels include characters who are health inspectors, or have related roles. One of them is Razor Girl, which features Andrew Yancey, whom fans will remember from Bad Monkey. In this novel, he’s no longer a police detective. He’s been demoted to Inspector for the Health Department. He gets involved in a complex (this is Hiaasen….) case when he discovers hair from a beard in the food at Clippy’s Restaurant. The hair turns out to belong to Buck Nance, a reality show star who presumably went into hiding after a disastrous live show. One of Yancey’s leads is con artist Merry Mansfield, who ended up trying to scam Lane Coolman, who was supposed to meet Nance in Key West (Florida). Coolman’s now worried about Nance’s whereabouts, and Yancey sees a way to get his badge back if he finds out the truth. He and Mansfield work together, but Yancey’s got to go up against serious odds, including a restaurant infestation of Gambian pouched rats (yes, those are real, and they can grow to be about .9 m (about 3 ft.) long).
Public health is a very real and important concern. So, it’s little wonder that health inspectors of different sorts can shut down restaurants and all sorts of other businesses. Their job might not always make them a lot of fans, but we do need them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Penny Piece’s Saddam Henderson’s Old Time Country Kitchen.