Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Food in Crime Fiction

JULIA POMEROY: Rosemary Harris invited me to post today, so I'm going to use this forum to ask for your help. It's not a writing problem, it's a panel problem. I'm going to be on a panel in New York, in a few days, called Murder Most Fowl, about food and crime fiction. It's during the Roger Smith cookbook conference, so were not talking about casual mention of food.

I'm not going to list authors who's books are centered on food or recipes because Katherine Hall Page is on the panel and her character is a caterer and she includes recipes, so she'll know much more than I do about the lighter genre. (The character in my first two books, Abby Silvernale, worked in a restaurant - that's my connection).
Rosemary: Don't be so modest - you also used to OWN a restaurant, the cool one pictured here.
JULIA POMEROY: What I'm really interested in is what the protagonists we love eat, while they solve or commit crimes and what that food, or their attitude toward it, says about them.

Jack Reacher, all six foot  six or whatever he is, goes to diners, or places like Denny's. Perfect for Reacher. He's a big piece of machinery, doesn't care about fancy trappings, needs someplace roadside, walks a lot, fights a lot, etc. It's all about fuel and calories.

In A Dark Adapted Eye, by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, the narrator describes a meal  for nine people prepared during rationing, meant to impress one particular man who never showed up. The meal required the slaughter of two household rabbits and the use of most of their garden vegetables. The entire group waited forever for the guest of honor to show up, and when they finally ate, everything was dried out and ruined.
Are there any meals your favorite protagonists or villains have eaten that help you understand them better, or that underline the scene at hand, or move the action forward in any way?
ROSEMARY: I was lucky enough to get an advanced readering copy of Julia's terrific new book, No Safe Ground - and she's got another for one of our commenters. It's a chilling, fast-paced story of an Afgan vet on the run in the US because of something she saw...
Visit Julia's website
to learn more about No Safe Ground AND the ereader versions of the Abby Silvernale books!


  1. Hhmm . . . I remember in particular that food seemed to keep cropping up all the time in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s “To Darkness and to Death.” A French toast breakfast for a large group of searchers . . . butternut squash soup . . . a fancy banquet dinner . . . food being fixed at the Church for the anticipated visit by the Bishop. I didn’t think too much about it until you asked the question . . . throughout the series of books, Clare [the central character, who is an Episcopal priest] is often making or eating comfort food [soup, chili, bread, spaghetti, lamb stew] . . . it fits right in with her character. Interesting to think about food in relation to the characters in the story . . . .

  2. I love to try recipes in food related books. I think the food and the story must complement each other, but cannot remember any specifics - if I did they might have been out of sync with the story.

  3. I can't think of any but I do find it tiring if the book revolves around one eatery or food. I partially read a book not too long ago where all they ate were do-nuts and pizza. Not even a hamburger, egg McMuffin or chocolate! My blood sugar went through the roof and my interest plummeted!

  4. Many of us like to read about good meals and restaurants in novels. In my current WIP I set one scene at one of my favorite restaurants in NYC, Vivolo's, on East 74th St. It is a transition chapter, but a feel/ good one - and I hope my readers enjoy that meal! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  5. In _Rush of Blood_ the new stand-alone from Mark Billingham (which is unfortunately not yet available here in the states - thank goodness for The Book Depository), 3 couples who witnessed something while on vacation at the same spa, gather at 3 dinner parties (one at each of their houses) to discuss and reveal secrets. It worked beautifully as a framing device for the novel, but i have to say, thinking back on it, I don't remember much about the food.

  6. Hi Julia, nice to see you here! Is this the panel that was mentioned back in the fall? what fun!

    As you might expect, I love reading about food and eating. Food can absolutely reveal character. In my first series, the character was a wannabe professional golfer, yet she ate almost nothing but fast food--and a lot of beer of course:). Now that I think of it, this was so consistent with her struggle to imagine herself as a professional.

    The new book sounds wonderful!

  7. Kristopher--wouldn't it be interesting to go back and read those scenes and find out whether in fact the food wasn't discussed much, or whether the scenes were so captivating that you simple didn't notice...

  8. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone is a woman who never had much mothering, and she's never quite learned how to mother herself. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches are her specialty. But she rents her cool little house from Henry, who is always turning out (and sharing with her) good bread, rolls and other baked goods, and a few times a week she zips around the corner to Rosie's for Hungarian food and, just like in your mother's kitchen, she doesn't put in an order, Rosie simply serves up what she believes Kinsey needs to eat.

    Louise Penny, on the other hand, uses food to educate those unfortunate enough not to have spent time in Quebec, about the culinary culture (which is indivisible from the other aspects of culture) in La Belle Province.

    Farmstead cheese. Smoked meat. Croissants and choclatines. Licorice pipes. And strong coffee from Tim Horton's.

    With the possible exception of the coffee, which is inhaled by the Surete officers, the food is consumed communally, in a relaxed manner, and every bite is appreciated.

    That says a great deal about Three Pines and the other Eastern Township communities where her characters live.

  9. There is certainly a lot of food in my latest Lady Georgie book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas--but then Christmas at a manor house would revolve around food--much of it elaborate banquets. And cream teas with scones... and mince pies, ... excuse me, I'm feeling in need of a snack.

  10. I enjoy books set in the south, and I think one of the reasons is that food plays a major role in most of them. It's a means to illustrate the connections between characters and to define the location and culture. Also, it may be that my father was from the south and it plays to my memories of him.

    I have Julie's new book on order. Anticipating, anticipating...

  11. Julia, I'd forgotten about that episode in A Dark Adapted Eye--horribly wonderful. What a great topic! I use food a lot in my books, and for different reasons. Having your characters eat is a great way to frame a conversation, avoiding the talking head syndrome. WHAT my characters eat usually says something about them. It's also often a counterpoint to the difficult things that are happening on a case, and both a binding and bonding element--many discussions that move a case forward take place around Gemma and Duncan's kitchen table.

    I think you can easily tell, from the importance of food to the characters, that food is important to me...interesting reveal.

  12. Interesting discussion. The mention of Dark-Adapted Eye reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, where eating is under not only rationing, but also occupation, and food becomes a tool of subversion. I love how a meal or food can become a clue to a character -- Olive Kitteredge's Donut Holes; the meals Guido and Paola eat in Donna Leon's series and what he chooses when he's out. And Brenda makes excellent points about the uses Sue Grafton and Louise Penny make of food to portray both mood and character.

  13. Yes, Lucy/Roberta, it is that panel, and the moderator so wanted you on it, but you couldn't make it. So he's stuck with me. I feel the way a lot of people do, I don't notice the food, but it's been interesting to think about it. I've also been thinking that in classic crime fiction, food is often connected to death, through poisoning.

  14. Food comes up in my Magical Cats mysteries. Two of the characters have developed their relationship over numerous shared cups of coffee.

    I was lucky enough to read Leslie's upcoming Death al Dente and her food descriptions made me hungry.

  15. In Deb Harkness's All Souls Trilogy, the main character (Diana) does not like venison - and it makes her queasy while she's pregnant. The other main character (Matthew) loves wine, and the first book spends a great deal of time discussing (and drinking) wines.

    Deb Crombie - I love the Kincaid/James kitchen table focus! And, if I remember correctly, you have a character who is a vegetarian (as I am a vegetarian, it struck me how rarely you see that in books) - a very pleasant surprise for me!

  16. I would certainly not say he was "stuck" with you Julia--your food background is fascinating!

    By the way Reds, we're doing more food tomorrow. Scott Haas will be visiting with his new book, THE BACK OF THE HOUSE, which is nonfiction--about the psychology of an actual chef in Boston. It is fascinating so don't skip class:)

  17. ANd I was recently reding some "pet peeves" of readers--and a major and much-mentioned one was the heroine who "forgot to eat." People were hilarious about it--saying: when was the last time YOU forgot to eat???

    Another PP was the sleuth with the wilted celery and yogurt in teh fridge.

  18. I know, Hank. Forgetting to eat! Ridiculous.