Category Archives: Tarquin Hall

If You Think That I Don’t Know About the Little Tricks You Play*

Faked EvidenceIt’s very difficult to commit a crime without leaving any evidence behind. So police look carefully for anything that can link a crime to its perpetrator. Most criminals know this, too. And sometimes, they fake evidence, either to confuse the police or to implicate someone else.

Admittedly, in a ‘heat of the moment’ kind of crime, the criminal may be more interested in covering her or his own tracks, so to speak, than in taking the time to fake any of the evidence. But it can still happen. And it happens in pre-planned crimes too. Faked evidence figures into a lot of crime fiction, too – much more than I can mention in just this one post. But here are a few examples.

Arthur Conan Doyle used this plot point in more than one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Adventure of the Priory School, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Thornycroft Huxtable, head of the exclusive Priory School. He wants Holmes’ help in finding one of his pupils, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire has disappeared, and Huxtable is afraid he’s been abducted. Holmes takes the case and immediately begins to trace the boy. The case turns out to be more complicated than kidnapping for ransom, but Holmes discovers the truth. At one point, they see a great number of cow tracks out on the moor as they investigate. But they never see any cows. As if that’s not strange enough, the tracks indicate that the cows are behaving in ways that are very unusual: galloping and cantering. Holmes follows up on this clue and learns, not much to his surprise, that the evidence of the cow tracks was faked.

Agatha Christie also uses faked evidence in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so Poirot investigates each one to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. In this novel, there are lots of pieces of evidence, including a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief and smashed watch. Part of Poirot’s task as he searches for the truth is to sift out which clues are genuine, and which have been faked. I can say without spoiling the story that there are some of each.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water introduces his sleuth, Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In this novel, Montalbano and his team are called to the scene when the body of Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car in The Pasture, a notorious area just outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. At first, it looks very much as though Luparello died of a massive heart attack during a sexual encounter. But little pieces of evidence just don’t add up for Montalbano. He requests, and is given, two days to see if he can find out what really happened. As it turns out, some of the evidence is deliberately faked, and Montalbano has decide which evidence that is in order to get to the truth.

There’s a very interesting case of faked evidence in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney who gets drawn into a very complex case when fellow attorney Carolyn Polhemus is murdered. This case will have to be handled carefully and transparently, but Sabich’s boss believes he’s up to the task. What Sabich hasn’t mentioned to anyone is that he has a personal stake in this case: he was involved with the victim until just a few months before she was killed. When that fact comes out, Sabich is replaced by a rival. Then, evidence begins to build up that Sabich himself may have committed the crime. Now he finds himself on the other side of the law as he faces a murder trial. With help from his own counsel Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, Sabich works to clear his name. And part of doing so will involve looking through the evidence and determining which is genuine and which has been faked.

Sometimes, evidence is faked when a killer wants to disguise a murder as the work of another killer who’s already known to the police. Such ‘copycat’ murders can be very difficult to difficult to distinguish from the ‘real thing.’ That’s what happens, for instance, in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DS Maeve Kerrigan and her Met team are on the trail of a multiple murderer whom the press has dubbed The Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate his victims’ bodies. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks as though she, too, was killed by The Burning Man. But little clues suggest otherwise to Kerrigan. Although she wants to keep working the case, her boss directs her to focus on the Haworth murder. It may be the work of The Burning Man, who’s simply changed his methods a bit. Or, it may be a ‘copycat killer.’ In either case, if the Met gives the appearance of not paying attention to this murder, there will be serious consequences. As Kerrigan and her team look at the Haworth murder, we see how evidence can be manipulated.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a very clear example of the way evidence can be faked. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri discovers that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. According to reports, he was attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The story goes that the murder was punishment for Jha’s denouncement of ‘godmen,’ people who prey on others’ need to believe in religion. There are a great number of people, too, who are convinced that that’s exactly what happened. However, Puri thinks that the murder has a more prosaic solution. So he begins to investigate. And as he does, we learn quite a lot about how evidence can be used to create whatever impression someone might want.   

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, who was killed during a holiday stay with her aunt and uncle. At first, as you’d expect, the police concentrate on the victim’s family and friends. But they can’t get enough clear evidence to prosecute. Then, a few months later, another body is discovered. This time the victim is sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. Like Angela, her body is found with a scarf wrapped round her head and neck. Now the police and press begin to suspect a serial killer, whom they dub the Sydney Strangler. The killer is never caught, though. Years later, documentary journalist Erin Fury is preparing a piece on the impact of murder on the families of the victim. When she takes an interest in the Buchanan case, we learn just what evidence means, and doesn’t mean.

And that’s the thing about evidence. It is important, and crime scene and forensics specialists are critical to criminal investigation. But wise police detectives and attorneys know that evidence doesn’t always tell the whole story, or even the truth.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s I Can See For Miles.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:
 

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:
 

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’
 

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,
 

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’
 

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, James Lee Burke, Robert Rotenberg, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

Let’s Get Married*

Arranged MarriagesIn Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, to help his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver. She’s at Nasse House on commission from its owner Sir George Stubbs; her task is to create a Murder Hunt as a part of the festivities for an upcoming fête. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that there’s more going on at Nasse House than preparations for the event. Poirot has agreed to look into the matter with her. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, actually is killed. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate to find out who was responsible. As a part of that investigation, Poirot wants to get to know the members of the household as well as possible. So he has a conversation with Amy Folliat, whose family used to own Nasse House, and who’s lived in the area all her life. In fact, Sir George married her ward Harriet ‘Hattie’.  Here’s what she and Poirot have to say about that marriage:
 

‘‘…I admit that I deliberately influenced her to accept him. If it had turned out badly –’ her voice faltered a little, ‘– it would have been my fault for urging her to marry a man so many years older than herself.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Poirot approvingly, ‘that you made there a most prudent arrangement for her… To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’’

Many modern people, especially members of Western cultures, might bristle at the idea of arranged marriages. But marriage arrangements are still common in many parts of the world. In those cultures, there’s logic to that. It’s believed that parents have their children’s best interests in mind, and are more mature. Who better to guide the choice of marriage partner?

Of course, not all parents do have their children’s best interests at heart, and they aren’t always mature. Still, as Poirot points out, there’s more to a good marriage than just emotions and romance (not, of course, that they don’t matter). So even in cultures where marriages aren’t formally arranged by the families, parents often weigh in on their children’s choices of partner. Caring parents want their children to make wise choices.

Arranged marriages have been a part of many societies for a long time, too, and certainly a part of crime fiction. For example, Robert van Gulik’s sleuth is Dee Jen-djieh, usually known as Judge Dee, who serves as Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, in the northwest of China. Judge Dee has three wives, a not-uncommon practice during the Tang Dynasty in which he lives. His marriage to his first (senior) wife was arranged by their families. He’s chosen his other two wives. And the custom of families arranging marriages is woven throughout the Judge Dee stories. It’s sometimes a very elaborate process, with ritual visits and gifts and planning.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a difficult case. She’s been assigned to find out the truth about sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahman, whose parents are recent émigrés from Pakistan. It’s suspected that Tamima was coerced into a marriage against her will – a marriage arranged by her family. On the one hand, Goldsmith is not alone in her belief that sixteen-year-olds are too young to marry, whether or not it’s their choice. On the other hand, as the Rahman family reminds her, every culture is different, and it’s risky to make judgements about other belief systems. As Goldsmith works to find Tamima and sort out the truth about this marriage, she also has to confront her own assumptions.

That’s also the case in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies. In one plot thread, Constable Evan Evans has to deal with greatly increased tensions in the town of Llanfair. The Khan family moved there not long ago and no-one is really comfortable about it. The Khans are Pakistani, and the locals are not accustomed to their traditions. For their part, the Khans have been treated with enough bigotry that they don’t trust anyone. One day though, sixteen-year-old Jamila Khan helps Evans’ wife Bronwen with groceries, and the two strike up a friendship. So when Jamila disappears, Bronwen is especially worried, and urges her husband to look into the matter. It’s believed that the girl went into hiding to avoid being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged wedding. At first, the Khan family blames Bronwen for interfering and accuses her of shielding Jamila. And even after it becomes clear that Bronwen had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance, the Khans still believe that their customs and traditions are being disregarded. To them, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that Jamila will have a solid marriage to someone of their own culture. There’s of course more to this mystery than that question, but it forms an interesting thread throughout the novel.

Arranged marriages are also a part of modern life in India. A former colleague told me that, in her experience, it’s not that today’s young people have absolutely no say in their partners. But parents often do guide their choices. For example, parents may consult astrologists to find out the best sort of match for their child. They also put out personal advertisements in papers, and participate in ‘vetting’ marriage candidates. They get involved in other ways too. Once the spouse-to-be is chosen, both families make arrangements for the wedding. We see this process in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, which introduces Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His ‘bread and butter’ is background checks on future spouses. Families pay his agency to find out everything possible about a likely marriage candidate before the final wedding agreement is made. In this novel, Puri’s involved in a few such background checks, and they lead to some interesting findings.

Arranged marriages may seem coercive or worse. Certainly people from Western backgrounds, who likely chose their own partners, may see the custom as wrong. Speaking strictly for my family, I’m quite sure my daughter wouldn’t have gone along with an arranged marriage; nor would I. But not everyone sees it that way, and the tradition has a long history in society – and in crime fiction.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Rhys Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall

But I’ve Found a Driver and That’s a Start*

Drivers and ChauffeursMost of us haven’t had the experience of having our own chauffeur/driver. More likely, we’ve taken on that role for our children and grandchildren. But there was a time when families who could afford to do so had a chauffeur, or at least someone whose duties included driving people where they wanted to go. And there are still plenty of people who consider it a real status symbol to have a driver. There is also a big market for professional car services; they, too, employ drivers.

Drivers and chauffeurs can play interesting roles in a crime novel. They see a lot, and they know a lot about their employers’ personal business. This makes them both potentially powerful (because of what they know) and vulnerable (for the same reason). There are lots of examples of drivers and chauffeurs in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him out of a difficult situation. Local book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s task is to find Geiger and stop him; this Marlowe agrees to do. By the time he tracks the book dealer down though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is a witness, but she’s having a mental breakdown (or perhaps has been drugged) and can’t be of much help. Marlowe gets her out of the way before the police find her and in doing so, thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods. Then he gets a call from LAPD cop Bernie Ohls, who tells Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ Buick, and the body of their chauffeur, have been dredged from the water off the Lido pier. It looks on the surface like a case of suicide, but soon enough it’s proven to be murder. Now, each in a different way, Ohls and Marlowe work to link that death to Geiger’s death and to other events in the story.

Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary introduces readers to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from San Quentin and is looking for work. It’s not easy, as you can imagine, because of his record. But he finds one opening that seems right: chauffeur/bodyguard for Eileen Scofield. Her very wealthy husband Victor is disabled and cannot leave his room. But, as he tells Hadlock, he doesn’t want his wife to be trapped in the house; hence, the need for an escort/chauffeur. The pay is excellent, the working conditions quite good, and Eileen Scofield is pleasant company, so Hadlock eagerly accepts the position when it’s offered. The only stipulation is that Hadlock’s relationship with his employer’s wife must be strictly professional. Anything else will have dire consequences. Hadlock has no problem with that job requirement, so at first, all goes well. But slowly, he learns that this position will be a lot more dangerous than he thought.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing duo’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. Unlike many fictional sleuths, she has a loving family whom she visits when she can. The Crawfords’ driver Simon Brandon is virtually a member of the family, although he is an employee. He served with Bess’ father in the military, and has remained loyal. Besides being the family chauffeur, he also conducts certain family business and travels on behalf of the Crawfords at times. Although it’s not really a job requirement, he also looks out for Bess, and does his best to keep her safe (not that that’s a particularly easy job…).

And then there’s Handbrake, whom we first meet in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. He serves as the driver for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri (hence, his nickname). Handbrake is highly skilled at negotiating Delhi traffic, which is no mean feat. And although Puri treats him professionally and respects him, Handbrake also serves as a kind of status symbol. Here’s what Puri thinks about it (from The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing). In this scene, he’s waiting for a client who’s very late for a ‘sting’ operation they’re conducting:
 

‘He cursed under his breath for not having anticipated his client’s poor driving skills. But then what sort of fellow didn’t employ a driver?’
 

Among members of Puri’s class and culture, a driver is a ‘minimum requirement.’

And then there’s George Pelecanos’ The Night Gardener. In that novel, Washington D.C. police detective Gus Ramone is faced with a particularly difficult case. The body of a teenage boy Asa Johnson has been found in a local community garden. This case eerily resembles a case Ramone worked with his former partner Don ‘Doc’ Holiday twenty years earlier: a series of unsolved murders. Holiday has since left the force and now works as a chauffeur/bodyguard. He’s drawn back into working with Ramone and with retired detective T.C. Cook by this new case, which brings back an old case that haunts all of them.

Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series will know that she often gets help in her cases from wharfie taxi drivers Bert and Cec. Technically speaking, of course, they are not her employees. But more than once, they put aside their own business concerns to lend a hand in an investigation.

There’s also an Agatha Christie novel in which a driver plays an important role in a case. Nope – no more details. Never let it be said that I spoil novels for those who haven’t read them. But fans who have read this one will know which story I mean.

There are, of course, many other crime plots that are at least partly driven by chauffeurs.  Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Drive My Car.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Todd, George Pelecanos, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Robert Colby, Tarquin Hall

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