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.