Name Your Poison: A Brief, Highly Subjective History of Culinary Crime

By Katherine Hall PageDecember 19, 2014

Name Your Poison: A Brief, Highly Subjective History of Culinary Crime

WRITING A MYSTERY NOVEL is like creating a recipe: each involves combining ingredients, and at the end of both endeavors you have something delicious to consume. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) wrote that “Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them.” If you combine this observation with that of the Baron De Mareste (1784–1867) that le mauvais gout mène au crime, or “bad taste leads to crime,” you get a sense of why culinary crime novels have long been popular.

Some cite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) as the first culinary mystery. In it, the narrator, Montresor, lures his already inebriated victim, Fortunato, into the palazzo’s cavernous wine cellars with the promise of tasting a rare vintage sherry. Montresor walls up Fortunato, still alive, in a convenient niche near some conveniently stashed bricks. Presumably no Amontillado crossed the doomed man’s lips. So the story is not one of detection, but horror, and the wine only plays a supporting part. Similarly, a comestible in the form of a Christmas goose assumes a role in Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” The jewel is discovered in the goose’s craw. The fowl is a fat one and there is an allusion to roasting it, but nothing to whet our appetites save Holmes’s delectable method of detection.

This brings us to arguably the true progenitors of the genre — Rex Stout (1886–1975) and Charlotte Murray Russell (1899–1992) — with Stout’s Nero Wolfe serving as the somewhat irascible father of culinary crime and Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards the slightly more amiable mother. Fer-de-Lance, the book that introduced Stout’s corpulent detective and his sidekick Archie Goodwin, was published in 1934, the year before Jane Amanda, a self-described “full-fashioned” woman, made her 1935 debut in Murder at the Old Stone House. Both Stout and Russell were born in the Midwest. Russell stayed and set the Edwards books in a thinly disguised version of her hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. Stout left and occupied a much larger stage, although his agoraphobic sleuth Nero Wolfe resided, and seldom left, his Manhattan brownstone, tending his orchids and ordering meals from his personal chef, Fritz Brenner, of whom Archie said, “He could even make milk toast taste superb.”

Rex Stout’s masterpiece Too Many Cooks stands alone in the annals of culinary crime. In a rare departure, Nero Wolfe leaves his comfort zone for a resort in West Virginia, the setting for a gathering of the crème de la crème of international chefs — Les Quinze Maîtres, the 15 Masters. Archie goes too, of course, and Wolfe hopes to obtain a much desired, and well-guarded secret recipe for saucisse minuit from one of the chefs. The fun and games prior to the first murder suggest a Food Network challenge. Chefs must identify dishes and ingredients while blindfolded. The plot is a classic locked room one and is not overwhelmed by the food — no mean feat.

When asked what was the best meal in English literature, Nora Ephron replied, “The banquet in Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout.” The banquet, planned by Nero Wolfe, comes at the end of the book and is his impassioned defense of American cuisine, delivering a hearty slap in the face to the skeptical sophisticated chefs attending: Philadelphia Snapper Soup, Terrapin Stewed in Butter, Planked Porterhouse Steak, Boone County Missouri Ham, Creole Tripe, Lobster Newburgh, Beaten Biscuits, Sally Lunn, Pineapple Sherbet, and Sponge Cake.

Too Many Cooks was serialized in The American Magazine from March to April in 1938 and issued in book form that same year. The promotional tour organized by the magazine has become a legend in publishing history. It was essentially a traveling road show, the author occupying a specially designed Pullman train accompanied by a revolving cast of actors, writers, sports figures, and other notables. They stopped in 12 cities, starting in Boston and ending in St. Louis. In each city, Stout presided over an elaborate luncheon replicating the menu from Too Many Cooks. As souvenirs, the magazine created 1,000 presentation boxes in the shape of a book containing the luncheon menu, the 35 recipes, and a note from Nero Wolfe in which he urges the recipients to cook the recipes themselves, adding, “They are items for an epicure, but are neither finicky nor pretentious.” Subsequent editions of Too Many Cooks sadly dropped the recipes.

In 1973 Rex Stout published The Nero Wolfe Cookbook with Sheila Hibben, of The New Yorker, and Barbara Burn. The recipes, some created by Stout himself, were drawn from the entire series. The volume is a lovely evocation of dishes like sautéed shad roe, with specific references to each book. The definitive source for information on both the brilliant detective and his creator is John McAleer’s 1977 biography, Rex Stout: A Biography. Among Stout’s legion of fans were both Agatha Christie and M. F. K. Fisher.

Rex Stout published 47 Nero Wolfe mysteries as well as many short stories, other novels, and plays. Charlotte Murray Russell, in contrast, published only 12 books in the Edwards series and eight other mysteries. She started crafting the novels during the Depression to put food on the family table, and ended her career in 1953 at age 54, saying she was tired of writing. She remained very active until her death at 93, working at the Rock Island public library and making notes for a memoir.

Russell’s female amateur sleuth was a breakthrough, combining a sharp sense of humor with equally sharp powers of detection and observation. Much more down to earth than Miss Marple, Miss Edwards nevertheless shares an uncanny ability to see through a tissue of lies — she calls herself “old X-ray Jane” — as well as to extrapolate village life to all human behavior. A 40-something “spinster,” Jane Amanda is the head of a household consisting of a younger sister and brother. Her brother’s penchant for unsuitable women and for drink — one glass of wine sends him over the edge — keeps Jane on her toes. This is not an easy task given her 180 pounds, all of them the result of the mouth-watering food described in the series. Like Stout, Russell’s books are a celebration of American regional cooking, in this case Midwestern comfort food. In books like Cook Up a Crime, the housekeeper Theresa’s chicken and dumplings, lemon meringue pie, fudge cake, and other staples may send readers straight to the fridge and pantry, especially as it contained an occasional recipe. Rue Morgue Press has reissued a number of Russell’s books, and they more than hold up to contemporary standards.

While many meals are consumed in Agatha Christie’s work, and some described in detail, particularly in the Poirots, it is Dorothy Sayers who first comes to mind when cataloging culinary crime across the pond. The Documents in the Case may put one off mushrooms for life as it introduces us to the world of fatal fungi. However, it is Sayers’s 1928 short story “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste” that showcases her knowledge of food and more especially drink. “In vino veritas,” she notes, and her sleuth Peter Wimsey unmasks his imposter by correctly identifying the obscure wines accompanying each course at a chateau in France, before repairing to the library for a suitably venerable cognac with his host. Among Sayers’s many UK successors, Janet Laurence, a cookery expert, has created a chef, Darina Lisle, who is as knowledgeable in the kitchen as she is in detecting. The first in the series of 10 books is A Deep Coffyn (1989). Among the best is A Tasty Way to Die (1990).

In the United States, the culinary crime pioneer who extensively included recipes in her mysteries was Virginia Rich (1914–1985). Like Rex Stout and Charlotte Murray Russell, her roots were in the Midwest, but after her marriage she went on to live in many places, spending the latter part of her life moving between the family’s working cattle ranch near Tucson, Arizona, and the small Maine coastal village of Corea. Both provide settings for her work. She only published three novels: The Cooking School Murders (1982), The Baked Bean Supper Murders (1983), and The Nantucket Diet Murders (1985), but anyone writing in this subgenre owes her a debt. She set the bar high. Her amateur sleuth, Eugenia Potter, is a widow in her 60s, and while not a professional chef, she more than knows her way around a kitchen. ’Genia also enjoys a very dry martini, or two.

Virginia Rich’s books were unique not only for the introduction of so many recipes — outlined in the text and in detail on the endpapers — but also for the treatment of character and place. The mysteries are good puzzles, but it is Mrs. Potter herself and Rich’s depiction of her world that has made these books continuing pleasures and great rereads. The Baked Bean Supper Murders is a portrait of Down East life that has all but vanished — Grange Hall suppers, lobstering with just a plumb line and a compass, the post office as the main source of news, and Saturday night baked beans from the bean pot that had been sitting overnight on the wood stove. Rich’s recipes are also a celebration of New England cuisine: Blueberry Buckle, Sour Cream Cole Slaw, Baked Ham, Molasses Cookies, Steamed Brown Bread, Lobster Pie, and, in her later books, dishes from the Southwest. After Virginia Rich’s death, her family asked renowned mystery writer Nancy Pickard to complete the manuscript for The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders (1993). Pickard also wrote two more in the series from notes Rich left: The Blue Corn Murders (1998) and The Secret Ingredient Murders (2001), providing readers with a happy total of six Eugenia Potter books.

Continuing the tradition and foreshadowing the plethora of culinary mystery novels that followed is Diane Mott Davidson, the author of 17 Goldy Schulz culinary mysteries to date. She published the first, Catering to Nobody, in 1990. The book introduced Goldy, a recent divorcee with a young son, trying to make a living as a caterer in a small Colorado town. All Davidson’s books include recipes and, like Rich’s, character and place are well represented at the table.

One of the most enduring non-series classics in culinary crime is Nan and Ivan Lyons’ Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1990). They wrote several others in the genre, but this is the pièce de résistance and is also quite tasty in the screen version: Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978) has an outstanding cast — George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Philippe Noiret, and especially Robert Morley. One by one the chefs are dispatched in a manner that relates to his signature dish. Readers will never look at a duck press the same way again.

Food is often used as a way to define character in both fiction and nonfiction — we are known by what we consume, like Ronald Reagan and his jellybeans or Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone and her peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Many other crime writers have featured food in some manner, as the means to an end (literally) or an expression of their own and their character’s appreciation of the table. Robert B. Parker’s books are filled with descriptions of meals eaten and meals prepared. “When in doubt, cook something and eat it,” Spenser, his memorable PI, notes — a motto that could well serve for all the sleuths mentioned and for readers, as well. A Spenser cookbook has long been in the works and the hope is that it will appear soon.

Culinary crime cookbooks have become increasing popular. Contemporary authors Donna Leon, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Cornwell, and Alexander McCall Smith all have cookbooks. In addition, there are many cookbooks offering recipes contributed by a range of genre mystery writers, not solely those writing culinary ones.

One of the earliest and possibly the best of these cookbooks is Madame Maigrets Recipes (1975), compiled by the noted French food writer Robert Courtine. He wrote the book in honor of Maigret creator Georges Simenon’s 70th birthday, and it serves as both an homage to the writer and to the kind of classic French cuisine that greeted Maigret every day when he returned home for lunch and again for dinner — coq au vin, vichyssoise, tarte a la frangipane.

Other early cookbooks similarly celebrate their sleuths and food predilections: The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook (1981), by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins; The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook (1973), by William Bonnell; and The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking (1973), by Carolyn Keene — the last notable for the “Dancing Puppet Parfait,” a mix of apricot nectar, marshmallows, and whipped cream. A magnifying glass may be necessary to find the clues to good cooking in this one.

Reading and food go together. Propping a book up to keep turning the pages while eating is one of life’s great, guilty pleasures — a necessarily solo activity unless those sharing a meal are similarly engaged or uncommonly understanding. The consumption of the written word is as vital to some of us as the nourishment provided by foodstuffs. Culinary crime novels synchronize the two. Whodunit becomes irrevocably tied to whoateit. Long may both flourish.


Katherine Hall Page is the author of 21 adult mysteries featuring amateur sleuth/caterer Faith Fairchild.

LARB Contributor

Katherine Hall Page, who is often cited as one of the foremost in the culinary crime genre, published her first book in 1990. She is the author of 21 adult mysteries featuring amateur sleuth/caterer Faith Fairchild and five for younger readers. She received the Agatha for Best First (The Body in the Belfry, 1990), Best Novel (The Body in the Snowdrift, 2006), and Best Short Story (“The Would-Be Widower”, 2001). She has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Agathas, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She has also published a series cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, (2010), and Small Plates, (2014), a collection of short mystery fiction. The Body in the Birches, the 22nd in the series, will be published by Wm Morrow in May 2015. A native of New Jersey, she lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.


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