Food, Murder, and Mysteries
“I wish some psychologist would provide a convincing explanation of why murder is commoner among cooks than among members of any other profession.” --W. H. Auden, “The Kitchen of Life: An Introduction to the Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher”
If murder is more common among cooks than among people in other professions, as Auden says, no psychologist is needed to explain why. Just glance around the kitchen, peek into drawers and cabinets, and you’ll find an arsenal. Under the pressure of preparing meals, the average cook may succumb to the temptation of lethal weapons near at hand.
Even a modest kitchen comes equipped with plenty of sharp objects to dispatch those who get in the way—knives of different shapes and sizes, skewers, saws, and scissors. Blunt objects like cast iron pans, meat mallets, and rolling pins can put a dent in the hardest of skulls. Your average torturer would find much to his liking among vintage kitchen utensils and in the best-equipped modern kitchens, which have blow torches for making Crème Brûlée and charring the skin off peppers . . . or people.
Food can turn dangerous when cooked (the exploding turkey in a book by Isis Crawford), or even before it’s cooked (the frozen leg of lamb in “Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl). A delicious dish can mask the noxious taste of poison or prove fatal to an allergy sufferer. Eating a nice meal was the last thing many a Roman emperor, Borgia rival, and bullying husband did on this earth.
If food and murder go together, so do food and the murder mystery. The connection between sleuth and kitchen, though tenuous in classic detective stories, is sometimes cooked up after the fact based on little evidence. Amazon lists five Sherlock Holmes cookbooks though Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective mostly heats up chemicals.
Other sleuths who put in little time in the kitchen also have cookbooks with their names on them—Lord Peter Wimsey, Nancy Drew, and Nero Wolfe. All of them had someone else to make meals for them. At least Rex Stout, creator of the gourmet detective Nero Wolfe, collaborated with the editors of the cookbook named for his sleuth. His 1938 publicity tour for the fifth Nero Wolfe mystery, Too Many Cooks, included giveaways of book-shaped boxes containing recipes for 35 dishes mentioned in the mystery. Like his sleuth, Stout enjoyed fine food from complex recipes with many, sometimes exotic, ingredients.
Today’s mystery writers who explore the connection between food and murder often append recipes to their books. Culinary mysteries have become more numerous in the last decade or so, mirroring the popularity of TV cooking shows. Cooking and eating are comforting routines that make murder more palatable, at least on the page. Many culinary mysteries add another ingredient to the mystery meal: a large helping of humor, starting with a food-pun title.
"Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably."
Happy reading and eating!