by Diana Mott Davidson
Published by Bantam Books
336 pages, 1998
The Blue Corn Murders
by Nancy Pickard
Published by Delacorte Press
257 pages, 1998
Danger is Served
by Karen G. Anderson
Forget mist-shrouded country houses, creaking doors, and hysterical parlor maids. Skip tough-talking detectives of either gender. Nowadays the key ingredient in a successful mystery series seems to be a recipe.
This is definitely a change from the days of classic detective fiction. The appearance of food in a mystery novel back then usually meant that someone was about to be poisoned. No wonder archetypal detective Sherlock Holmes preferred his pipe to the pleasures of the table.
It wasn't until the 1930s that the first gourmet investigators set down the magnifying glass and took up a knife and fork. Readers stopped shivering and started to salivate when bulky French Inspector Jules Maigret took time out from an investigation to visit a neighborhood bistro in Paris, savoring andouillettes (sausages) with fried potatoes or blanquette de veau (veal cooked in cream sauce). Across the Atlantic in New York City, his even more substantial contemporary, private eye Nero Wolfe, feasted on meals prepared by his resident chef, Fritz Brenner. Wolfe's quest for cuisine was, however, quite separate from his quest for criminals -- he forbade even the mention of a case at the table. In the 1970s, Robert B. Parker opened up new territory when he introduced Spenser, a modern private eye whose hobby was gourmet cooking.
Today, as might be expected in our food-obsessed culture, comestibles are almost as common as punctuation in crime fiction. We still have plenty of poisonings (though now the vehicle is more likely to be a 27-ingredient chili than the traditional holiday pudding). Food even appears post-mortem -- in M.C. Beaton's Death of a Glutton (1993), for instance, a greedy woman is murdered and left with an apple stuffed in her mouth. And food can be employed to hide the evidence, as it does in Tamar Myers' Just Plain Pickled to Death (1997), in which a body turns up in a barrel of sauerkraut.
With the proliferation of American female detectives over the past 15 years, a new course of culinary crime fiction is being served as well. While Georges Simenon and Rex Stout created male detectives who loved to eat, Virginia Rich, followed by Diane Mott Davidson, Tamar Myers, Camilla Crespi, Katherine Hall Page, and Nancy Pickard, have given us female sleuths who enjoy cooking. These women aren't on the Scarsdale Diet, either: Their books are larded with recipes for cookies, stuffed potatoes, pasta, and other rich dishes guaranteed to tempt readers -- and eaters -- during the holiday season. The following reviews will give you tastes of two "cholesterol cozies" hot off the presses, with a distinctly Western flavor.
Diane Mott Davidson tried including low-fat recipes in one of her books about Colorado caterer/sleuth Goldy Schultz -- and regretted it. "The people who say they want low-fat recipes, it's their way of dealing with their guilt," she reported. "They don't want them; they'll never use them."
Prime Cut is Davidson's latest high-energy, high-calorie book in the series that follows Goldy's adventures in cooking and crime (Catering to Nobody and The Grilling Season). You can't help but like Goldy, her eager teenage son, Arch, her police officer husband, Tom, and her elderly mentor, chef Andre Hibbard. It's even easier to loathe her abusive ex-husband, Dr. John Richard Korman, her slimy catering rival Craig Litchfield, and Tom's nemesis, the lily-livered prosecutor Andy Fuller.
You just know that when all of these people get together, it's a recipe for trouble. As Goldy observes: "Life is like a fudge soufflé, life can collapse. You think you have it all together -- fine melted chocolate, clouds of egg white, hints of sugar and vanilla -- and then bam."
Bam, indeed. Don't worry about all of those calories, because Davidson takes you through Prime Cut like an aerobics instructor leading a peppy mall walk. All the (very) good guys and the (terribly) bad guys appear in the first 50 pages. And they don't waste time admiring the Colorado scenery, either. Goldy assaults the vituperative prosecutor. Her dog attacks the catering rival. And, to top it off, Goldy realizes every middle-aged, suburban woman's deepest and most passionate fantasy when the smarmy building contractor who skipped out in the middle of her kitchen remodel (leaving a gaping hole in the wall) meets an extremely unpleasant end.
Unfortunately, the key suspect in the contractor's murder is one of her closest friends. And then her beloved teacher, Andre, dies under highly suspicious circumstances. With her husband suspended from the police force due to her run-in with the prosecutor, Goldy has no choice but to investigate these crimes on her own. Popping dinner in the oven, she has just enough time to commit a break-in at the local historical museum to search for evidence that might clear her friend. And then it's back to the kitchen. "Cooking puts such unfortunate constraints on criminal behavior," Goldy laments.
Whew! Time for a break, in order to whip up a Savory Florentine Cheesecake (recipe on page 8). This cheesecake, a main dish, takes just over an hour to bake, and by then you'll be more than halfway through the book.
Prime Cut is a true cozy, and at times it reads like a soap opera with a dead body somewhere off stage. But Davidson has a knack for filling her books with quirky small-town characters who hold your attention even when the mystery plot -- involving a long-buried treasure -- occasionally plods. I suspect that Davidson's many fans will be less interested in learning who killed the contractor than they are in finding out how Goldy vanquishes her unpleasant catering rival and wins back her customers. Like a good home-cooked meal, Prime Cut doesn't have any surprises, but it's plenty satisfying.
The Blue Corn Murders, Nancy Pickard's latest book about the investigations of widowed ranch owner Genia Potter, is a more reflective mystery. Genia, who was introduced in The Cooking School Murders (1982) and featured in two subsequent books by the late Virginia Rich, lives on thanks to Pickard, who completed The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders (1993) based on notes Rich made before her death. Pickard is also the author of the Jenny Cain mysteries, including Twilight (1995).
Thoughtful and well-written, The Blue Corn Murders offers food for the soul as well as for the palate -- such as Sweet Dream Cookies:
They were addictive little molasses morsels, frosted to ensure their irresistibility, and named for their alleged magical ability to ensure a sweet night's sleep, if downed by a fretful child just before bedtime with a small glass of milk. She made them as her mother had, with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Her grandmother on her father's side had made them first -- with lard, of course. Grandma had left out the spices, too, and added more molasses, claiming it ripened' after a few days. Genia didn't imagine she would ever be able to prove that, as they tended to disappear within hours.
Munching a handful of Sweet Dream Cookies, Genia sets off in pursuit of her own secret dream -- a week-long course in Native American archeology at the Medicine Wheel digs near Cortez, Colorado. But she arrives at the Medicine Wheel camp ("home to sun-crazed archeologists and Indian-crazed tourists") to find more ominous forebodings than any batch of cookies can dispel. A wealthy banker on the camp's board is bent on finding reasons to fire the camp's director. The director is a nervous wreck. And Genia is assigned a troublesome roommate -- Gabriella Russell, a fledgling journalist who is as passionate about all things Native American as she is snide and derogatory about her fellow non-Indians.
Medicine Wheel archeologist Susan Van Sant is slowly fitting together the evidence she hopes will explain one of North America's oldest mysteries: what caused the Anasazi people to vanish from their Southwestern settlements some 800 years ago. But before Susan can confirm her theory, a busload of high-school students visiting the camp vanishes into thin air, and Gabriella is found dead at an ancient Indian site. When Gabriella's notebook turns up, with plans for an article that includes unflattering characterizations of certain Medicine Wheel staff and campers, Genia realizes that the journalist's death was not accidental.
In The Blue Corn Murders, Pickard creates a wonderful American variation on the traditional English country house mystery. A diverse group of characters, gathered for a supposed vacation, find themselves instead bound together by murder and the need to identify the murderer in their midst before he or she strikes again. Instead of a gothic mansion, Pickard gives us the eerie setting of an abandoned Anasazi settlement, "a red, orange, and golden empty city." And, as in any good country-house mystery, there is an imperious cook: the temperamental Bingo Chakmakjian, whose mouthwatering recipes, most of them featuring blue corn, appear on the book's inside covers. | November 1998
KAREN G. ANDERSON, editor of the Seattle-based magazine Northwest Health, writes frequently about crime fiction for January Magazine.