I’m often quizzed as to what subset of crime fiction the Greek Detective novels fit into, and my answer used to be reasonably straightforward (after my caveat that the books might not be crime novels at all, but morality tales). I used to think they were quite obviously Eurocrime. But that was before someone coined the term Gastroporn.
There can be no doubt that the fat man loves his food. He loves his food because I too love food – I love preparing it, I love eating it. And so I serve it up to Hermes, who is a most appreciative recipient. But Hermes is a long way from being the first fictional detective who might claim the status of gourmet.
In 1686 Nicholas Cox published The Gentleman’s Recreation, a book on country pursuits in which he recommended a method of diverting hounds from a scent by dragging a dead cat or fox across the trail. In the absence of suitable carrion, said Cox, a red herring would make a reasonable substitute.
Cox’s fish would have been a type of kipper cured in strong brine and then smoked, a process which turns the flesh red-brown. Metaphorical red herrings are happily less pungent, but they’ve always been a vital ingredient in crime fiction. Small wonder, then, that the genre seems inextricably linked with food.
Certainly I’m guilty of putting food centre-stage in my Greek island mysteries. My investigator, Hermes Diaktoros, is an occasional gourmand, whose particular weakness is for bougatsa – a flaky pastry filled with vanilla custard and cinnamon, best served warm from the baker’s oven with strong Greek coffee on the side. Hermes’s character mirrors my own love of good food and cooking, and he allows me to promote unashamedly what I love about Greek cuisine: ripe tomatoes still warm from the sun, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with mountain oregano; fish bought at the harbour-side, grilled over charcoal and served with a squeeze of lemon picked by your own hand from the tree.
As an epicurean detective, Hermes is in good company. In her 1920’s mysteries, Dorothy Sayers writes of Lord Peter Wimsey’s aristocratic lifestyle and rich diet like one to the manner born, serving him at one informal lunch a menu of consommé Polonaise, salmis of game, a plate of Gorgonzola and a bottle of Montrachet ’08 to wash it down.
But undoubtedly the best-known of crime fiction’s gourmet detectives is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who sat down on one fictional occasion to a banquet including baked oysters, terrapin Maryland, lima beans in cream, Sally Lunn and avocado Todhunter. No doubt you’re curious about the avocado; Todhunter was Rex Stout’s middle name, and the avocado recipe included watercress and citrus juices blended with crushed ice. In the novel If Death Ever Slept, Wolfe consumed a strawberry omelette, filet of beef in aspic, shad roe with creole sauce and bread triangles fried in anchovy butter, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Stout was himself a renowned gourmet, who in 1973 published a book of his detective’s favourite recipes, mostly French-inspired creations cooked with plentiful butter and cream.
It’s no surprise either that some of the world’s best-fed fictional detectives are found within the sub-genre of Eurocrime, especially amongst the French and the Italians, where the characters tend to reflect national enthusiasms for all matters culinary. In his Maigret novels, George Simenon’s descriptions of the bistros and cafes of Paris are so beautifully observed, they create a sense of longing in the reader – who, after all, could resist ‘the fragrance of frothy coffee and hot croissants spiced with a hint of rum’ – and Simenon gave Maigret a wife skilled in the kitchen, who prepared him skate in black butter, coq au vin, crème au citron and soufflés.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano also loves his food, and the novels’ descriptions of what’s arriving on the Sicilian lunch-table make it tempting for the reader just to get up and go there. Marco Vichi’s Inspector Bordelli is a man who loves home cooking, enjoying such dishes as osso bucco in the Algerian style and his mother’s polenta with cavolo nero cabbage and pezz’imbinata, little strips of pork marinated in red wine before grilling.
But whilst food seasons crime fiction with local colour and character, sometimes its inclusion is more sinister. Food can hide poison, and become an obvious medium for murder. Agatha Christie used poison in more than half of her novels and stories, administering deadly doses through food and drink as various as breakfast marmalade, cocktails and cups of tea. Countless other crime writers have followed suit, serving poison in everything from chocolate in The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley to mushrooms on toast in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, a book which opens with the statement: ‘This is not a conventional cookbook.’ Whilst the novel contains some excellent recipes, readers may wish to avoid those which contain mushrooms.
Have I offered any tainted dishes in my own novels? I couldn’t possibly comment. Like all crime authors, I’m writing mysteries whose plots lead to whodunit. But in company with many other writers, I see no reason not to offer a few delicious delicacies along the way. In my book, good food and a good mystery will always be a winning combination.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.