by Victoria Abbott
Why is it that mysteries and food go so well together? Particularly those satisfyingly cozy mysteries? Keep in mind, I’m not talking about hard-boiled adventures where the detective spends the night face down in the gutter after too much scotch and cold fish and chips in oily wrappers.
No. I’m thinking more about the kind of world where the characters often share a meal, plan strategies, and stroke their loyal pets. The kind of world we live in and one we want to write about.
In building the world of book collector mysteries, we wanted—-in addition to the austere, crumbling mansion so coldly inhabited by cranky book collector Vera Van Alst—a warm and comforting offset, a place where Jordan Bingham, our twenty-something sleuth could feel at home and where we could taste and savor every meal with her. We chose to model the food and the Italian cook on some of our relatives, brilliant cooks and as eccentric as all get out. Jordan, raised on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and beans and franks, enjoys every mouthful of these sumptuous meals as we have in real life.
Isn’t there something wonderful about sharing life through the senses? Taste is one sense that can transport us instantly to the scene. We don’t need a lot of description: we all know what a fresh, hot coffee tastes like or a frosted, still-warm doughnut or even a dish of ice cream. We’re betting that you could taste one or all of those as you read that last sentence.
Not only does the taste transport the reader (And we are all about transporting our readers!), but it is also kindness to our characters. Face it, we strand them, get them shot at, abandon them in burning buildings, ruin their love lives, all in a day’s work. Shouldn’t they be able to close their eyes from time to time and savor, say for example, that mountain of seafood linguine or Signora Panetone’s chocolate tiramisu?
Food can mean support for our characters from the other players in the story. Lack of support or decent food, makes us feel their pain. Are they chewing on cold pizza and slurping fizz-free flat cola on a stake-out? We would just hate that. Therefore, we’re rooting for them to get out of there with some success.
Some terrific amateur detectives cook and enjoy the whole ‘foodie’ thing as part of their gig. Maybe they have a café or a coffee business or are a restaurant reviewer. But most sleuths are too busy leaping over fences and running down blind alleys to stop and whip up a soufflé, if they had any idea how. That’s why it’s so good to have a minor character do the dirty work in the kitchen. Not only does it give us a break in the tension, but also a chance for the character to experience some kindness, although we’ve found that food often comes with unwanted advice. Never mind, amateur sleuths eat plenty but almost never take advice, free or otherwise.
Mysteries need pace; we can’t be staring down the barrel of a gun 24/7. Our characters need to rest, bathe, and possibly stare out the window. Who wants to read about characters sleeping, unless they’re having interesting nightmares? We need other ways to keep your interest. Food can serve that purpose in fiction and in real life. And isn’t that great?