Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are Crime Writers Food Freaks?

Working Stiffs welcomes back L.J. Sellers!

Are Crime Writers Food Freaks?

by L.J. Sellers

Discussion groups often talk about sex scenes in mysteries, with readers weighing in on both sides of the “necessary or not?” question. But what about food scenes? This subject rarely comes up in book discussions, yet I’ve come to realize there is a significant amount of food in crime novels! I don’t read enough in other genres to know if this is true across the spectrum, but I suspect it’s not.

What is it about food and crime fiction?

First, you have all the great cozy series built abound food themes, chefs, and recipes. To name a few, there’s Julie Hyzy (White House chef mysteries) Denise Deitz (Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread and others), Diane Mott Davidson (features a Colorado caterer), Joanne Fluke (whose murders are all named after a dessert) and Isis Crawford (with recipes in every book). You can find more of these authors—and their food— at a collective website called Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen.
But even private investigator series and police procedurals often feature food as a distinctive element of the character and/or story. In fact, my most vivid memories of the detective stories I read in high school involve the food consumed by the protagonists.

Nero Wolfe had a Swiss cook named Fritz who created amazing food I’d never heard of at the time (eggs au beurre noir, lamb shish kebab, shad roe). Wolfe had such a finicky palate (only fresh picked and roasted corn for him) and such a love of food, the character inspired his own cookbook and eventually, the annual Black Orchid Banquet, featuring those recipes.
My most vivid memory of Edward Delaney (of the Deadly Sins series) is seeing the detective standing over the sink, eating a sandwich made of rare roast beef, red onion, beefsteak tomato, and garlic-spiced mayonnaise. He stood at the sink because his creations were messy, despite being carefully crafted, and he was a man on the move.

More currently, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta often stops in the middle of investigations to create elaborate and delicious Italian meals, while Stephanie Plum eats a lot junk and comfort food on the fly.

All these food preferences serve as a cornerstone to the character’s development, but I believe they tell us even more about the authors. Having read most of Lawrence Sanders’ work, I feel safe in assuming he was a foodie and, mostly likely, a very sensual man. And Patricia Cornwell has produced a cookbook called Food to Die For. I think it’s safe to assume she enjoys cooking and regularly takes time to do so.

On the other hand, I’m not a foodie and you can tell by the way my poor character eats. Wade Jackson is a dedicated homicide detective who works nearly around the clock while he’s on a case, and he often skips meals or eats something quick and easy. Like his creator, for him food is a time-consuming activity and he’s a busy man. He always has good intentions though.

I’ve had several readers tell me Jackson needs to eat better or least take vitamins. It’s good to know they care that much about him, but I worry that they think I’m not a healthy eater.

Do you make assumptions about the author based on the food her character eats? What are your favorite character/food connections?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series based in Eugene, OR. Her first three books, THE SEX CLUB, SECRETS TO DIE FOR, and THRILLED TO DEATH have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines, and the fourth Jackson novel, PASSIONS OF THE DEAD, will be published in 2011. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers, THE SUICIDE EFFECT and THE BABY THIEF (coming soon). When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, and editing fiction manuscripts. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.


Joyce Tremel said...

Welcome back, L.J.

My characters aren't foodies, either. Summer eats simply, and sometimes forgets to eat. Irma Jean likes food--as long as someone else cooks it. Her mama, however, is an old-fashioned southern cook--fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pies, cakes, cornbread...

Okay I just made myself hungry.

I like to cook most of the time. I don't use many recipes, and when I do, I almost always improvise and change them. Most of the time I just wing it. Unless I'm baking, which needs to be exact, I don't measure anything--I use the "dump method" as my mother used to call it.

Annette said...

Welcome back to Working Stiffs, LJ!

I don't really think the food thing is limited to mysteries. Food does present a wonderul opportunity to show something about the character. And there's something of an obsession with food everywhere you go, so it only makes sense that it finds its way into fiction

Jenna said...

My characters eat all the time. None of them are good cooks, though. In the DIY-series, I use it both to develop character and enhance setting. The series takes place on the coast of Maine, so the characters eat a lot of Mainish food: lobster rolls, crab cakes, whoopie pies. Avery is a single career woman from New York(at least when the series starts out), so she subsists on sandwiches, canned tuna and microwaveable mac & cheese when 'cooking,' the rest of the time she goes to restaurants.

Savannah (in A Cutthroat Business) does the same thing. Single girl, struggling financially. She goes on dates to get fed. Pretty much continually. When she's home, she eats ice cream. And she was brought up with expensive tastes, so I imagine she probably eats Brie on crackers and that sort of thing. And salads, being worried about her weight.

Welcome back to the Stiffs, L.J. Interesting post!

Gina said...

Food sometimes plays a role in my writing, primarily as character development or as a way of emphasizing a recent occurrence -- for example, in Four Weekends, one of my many unpublished manuscripts, Sue (who has held low level jobs while working her way through college) thinks of restaurant kitchens and trays of raw chicken parts when she smells blood; later she is grossed out when one of her companions in crime, who has to this point made several people bleed, orders rare steak.

One of the first really clever murder mysteries I can remember reading (and I can't, unfortunately, remember what it was or who wrote it) involved a woman who bludgeoned her husband with a leg of lamb, then roasted the murder weapon and fed it to the detective. Of course, Fried Green Tomatoes goes even further . . .

Linda Leszczuk said...

Funny, I never thought about working food into my mystery-in-progress but I do identify who is eating (or drinking) what in several scenes. Just seems a natural part of the story.

But too much focus on food sometimes turns me off when I'm reading. Either it distracts from the story or it seems designed to make me go off my diet. On the other hand, in JD Robb's In Death series, I love the way all Dallas' fellow cops go crazy for free food, especially sweets.

Patg said...

Jennie, that was an Alfred Hitchcock Presents story. It is pretty famous. From back in the late fifties, I think.
My protagonist, Prudence, doesn't cook much either, she prefers to pick up ready-made at Zupans. I think L J will recognize that name, since we're both Oregonians.
And I like to talk in my books about TAs going to so many seminars and presentations, because the food the wholesalers provide, making going home to cook totally unnecessary. The only married with children in my books is the cashier/bookkeeper, and she doesn't get invited to seminars.
But to answer your question, LJ, I think everyone feels a first book reflects the author projecting his or herself, but as series go on it happens less and less.

Ramona said...

I wrote a post-funeral scene that took me forever. Why? I had to do a lot of "research." There are entire books written about post-funeral traditions, and why some foods are considered must-serve funeral foods. Some sound weird. More sound yummy. I had such a good time at that funeral, LOL.

But how and what a person eats, and cooks, can be a good way to show character clues. IRL, I don't trust a person who isn't into food.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

The original draft of A Reason For Dying had a long scene that took place in China. Food was a bit of a centerpiece. I'm going back to the Chinese culture in my WIP and food is an important part of that culture.

BTW, LJ, we have a little bit in common. Echelon published my short story.

L.J. Sellers said...

When I posted about this subject in a reader forum, some readers said they loved food scenes in novels, and others said they found them boring and skipped over them. So like everything else we write, food scenes are subjective to the reader.

Julie Hyzy said...

Thanks for the shout-out, L.J.! This is a great article. I love food scenes (I bet you could have guessed that) as long as they don't slow the pacing.

I remember that Alfred Hitchcock episode. I *think* it was based on a Roald Dahl short story, but for the life of me I can't recall the title.

Food + Mystery is always fun.

~ Babs ~ said...

I actually love food scenes as I enjoy using the recipes from the books I love to read.

Jenna said...

If it's the same story I'm thinking of (and that was Gina who brought it up, Pat, not me), it's called "Kitchen Things." The husband kills the wife's little songbird, the only thing of joy in her life. She cooks on a broken stove, wears ugly, old clothes, etc. She brains him with the roast and puts it in the oven. The detective's wife/girlfriend figures it out but doesn't say anything, and the men don't realize it because it's 'kitchen things' or 'women's things.' Unless that's a different story and I'm getting them mixed up. It's been a long time since I read it.

Jenn McKinlay said...

Thanks for the props! I'm the Wed gal on Mys Lover's Kitchen and I write the cupcake bakery series and one of my favorite parts is the research and development -- making up new cupcake recipes! Fun! As if this job could get any better!

Sarah Ann said...

I enjoy reading about food because it really does provide more insight into the characters and impacts the setting and mood of the novel!

The first novels that come to mind are M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin series. When Agatha is angry or depressed, it's comical to read how she pigs out -- and she's always going to the local pub for fish and chips. She also hosts frequent dinner parties and uses food and coffee to lure people to her home for some sleuthing action.

It definitely adds a whole new vibe and element to the book when the character eats.

Not to mention I'm always adding various dishes to my grocery-wish list as I'm reading. Yum!

Daryl Wood Gerber a.k.a. Avery Aames said...

Thanks, L.J. for the Mystery Lovers Kitchen shout-out!

I can't tell you how much fun research has been for the series I'm writing: A Cheese Shop Mystery series. Delish! But I never want the food to dominate the mystery. Writing a mystery is like making a good cheese souffle. Mess up the ingredients and everything comes out flat.


Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

Patg said...

I never read the short story, I just remember seeing the show. She was a sad little woman, but I don't remember the detective's girlfriend. She just sat down at the kitchen table with 3 cops and they ate the murder weapon.
I love Agatha Raison too, but what I found very funny is how she'd take frozen or store bought items to sales or dinner parties and pretend she made them.

Anonymous said...

Sure! Sometimes food connected with mystery is fun.Remember DEATH BY CHOCOLATE? :)