I don’t remember exactly when I first met Catriona McPherson — maybe at Left Coast Crime in Monterey in 2014. But I’ve never forgotten how she came to the debut authors panel when very famous authors (including Sue Grafton!) were speaking at the same time. That tells you a lot about who Catriona is, but she’s also smart, witty, and oh, how I wish she could read this post aloud to us so we could all enjoy her charming Scottish accent. I will also never forget that she bought a copy of Tagged for Death at Malice Domestic and had me sign it — back when I was terrified that no one would buy my books or ask me to sign them. So Catriona has been a shining example to me of how to be generous in the writing community.
Catriona is here to celebrate the release of The Turning Tide the fourteenth book in her fabulous Dandy Gilver mystery series!
Catriona: I love writing about food almost as much as I love buying it, cooking it, eating it, and cleaning the kitchen up afterwards. I really mean that last bit: much as I enjoy parties there’s something so satisfying about being in your jammies at getting on for midnight, washing a million dishes, accompanied by the night’s playlist looping for the fourth time, and guzzling any leftovers not worth putting in Tupperware.
This time, in The Turning Tide, Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne almost get to stay in a comfy pub with a generous landlord but, at the last minute, they’re diverted to a cold and cheerless private house, with a housekeeper who doesn’t take her catering duties seriously at all. They’re either hungry or suffering from indigestion the whole book through.
It got me thinking about other books where food as a whole or one meal in particular play a crucial part. Here’s my top five:
Food as clue: Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison
This novel, in which Peter Wimsey meets Harriet Vane when she’s on remand awaiting trial for murder, is a great example of an impossible crime. A meal whose every course is shared by at least two people and sometimes four kills just one of them. It’s lovingly described at two points in the book and, even though you know it carried a man off, it still sounds delicious:
“Well, there was the sherry. Then came a cup of cold bouillon … very strong, good soup, set to a clear jelly … a piece of turbot with sauce … a poulet en casserole – that is a chicken cut up and stewed with vegetables … The final course was a sweet omelette which was made at the table in a chafing dish by [the murder victim] himself.”
New bottle of sherry. The cook and maid hoovered up the fish leftovers and polished off the chicken too (like me doing the dishes after a party). So how did one of the four die and other three survive? It’s still a great plot and the start of a classic love story too.
Food as character: Alafair Burke The Wife and The Better Sister
It’s not one memorable meal that puts food at the heart of Alafair Burke’s Hamptons world; it’s more that the various parties and their menus place the characters so perfectly. I’m always left on the cusp of being glad I’ll never move in those circles and sort of pining for it, because it sounds yummy.
Just two short examples:
“… a bona fide dinner party. I was turning twenty-nine. I had done drinking from red Solo cups. … When I didn’t have a pot large enough to hold the braised short ribs I wanted, I bought one. When Matt asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I snipped a page from the Williams Sonoma catalog …” The Wife
Poor Chloe, right? Is there a single chance that all that optimism is going to survive the night?
“… a bar back and kitchen helper had no-showed … I was scrambling to make sure I didn’t let [Susanna] down, but keeping up proved less impossible than I’d feared. I’d turn around and the platter of shrimp cocktail that was running low would suddenly be replenished. … I walked into the kitchen to find a man reaching into the refrigerator for a plate of deviled eggs topped with caviar.” The Better Sister
He grins, says he’s busted, says she – the caterer – is the best thing about this smug party, eats one deviled egg whole and puts the rest on the dimpled tray without being asked. It’s a classic meet-cute. A man who knows what a deviled egg tray and an asshole is? Oh, if this were a rom-com they’d be set for life. No spoilers, but you know …
Food as family – Lisa Scottoline, the Rosato and DiNunzio series
Throughout the series, Ma and Pop DiNunzio are in their tiny kitchen with the napkin dispenser on the table, the pot of “gravy” on the stove, and the coffee perking. They feed Mary, her friends, her boyfriend, all the Tonys – Tony from down the block, Tony Two-feet (?) and Pigeon Tony. One time, Ma DiNunzio busts into an important meeting at Mary’s law office with a platter of sflogiatelle. “Ma, please don’t hug the clients!” is something Mary probably never thought she’d have to say.
Also, when Mary moves in with her very own Tony – Anthony Rotunno – and comes home one night early on to find “a big wooden bowl of romaine and arugula mixed with fresh shrimps, seared scallops and red peppers” you know A. she’s really left home and B. she’s going to be okay.
Food as tone – Margery Allingham, The Beckoning Lady
Allingham’s books are said to range “from the grave to the frankly satirical” (Observer review) but, to my mind, they missed out “totally bonkers”. The Beckoning Lady is one of the bonkers ones, a madcap, headlong rush of a novel set in the lead-up to a house party (at a house called The Beckoning Lady). There’s a lot of Champagne laid in and the children are put in charge of it because they won’t drink it; although they might open the wires just to hear the pop. (This is nothing to do with food, but Minnie and Tonker, the hosts, also use toddlers to polish the dining table. Literally – they uncover their towelling underpants and scoot them back and forth across it.) One item on the party menu is peacock pie, which the diners only find out about when they’re each given a tail feather tip to wear as a buttonhole. It’s said to stop the pie causing indigestion.
Maybe Allingham’s books are as acquired a taste as peacock pie, but I’m a huge fan and if David Lynch isn’t making films fast enough for you, you should give them a go.
Food as heartbreak: Shawn A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland
This is a short scene in the book, but it explains a lot about Beauregard “Bug” Montage’s life. It certainly leads directly to the event that changes it. For all that clever plotting though, it’s the pathos of what happens at the Tastee Freez drive-through that put tears in my eyes.
Bug loves his daddy, Anthony. Loves him. But already at 11 years old, little Bug knows his daddy too. He’s excited to go and get milkshakes, but worried. Anthony never remembers that chocolate is Bug’s favourite.
“After we get the shakes, maybe I should go get some neck bones. Take you home and make some soup for you and your Mama,” Anthony said.
Bug knew what that meant. … They pulled into the Tastee Freez and his daddy put the car in neutral. …
“Two shakes and a couple of greasy cheeseburgers. You want anything else?”
“No. Can I get a chocolate shake instead of strawberry?’
“Sure. You changing up on me,” Anthony said with a laugh.
Aw man. That little boy, tiptoeing around his father’s failings? It’s so neatly done, in a novel full to the brim of brilliant, tiny little points just like that. If you’ve missed it so far grab it now, so you can nod sagely when the awards come round next year.
Readers: And let me know what I’ve missed, eh? Because the best thing about putting together a top five is the head-smacking phase of being reminded about all the other great food scenes in crime fiction. Hit me!
Bio: Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010. She writes the multi-award-winning Dandy Gilver series, set in the old country in the 1930s, as well as a strand of multi-award-winning psychological thrillers. Very different awards. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the humorous Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry look at California life. These are not multi-award-winning, but the first two won the same award in consecutive years, which still isn’t too shabby.
Catriona is a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime.