Try the veal.
The words of Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969). In Francis Ford Coppolla’s 1972 film adaptation these words are spoken during one of the most iconic gangster film scenes of all time. The scene takes place in Louis Restaurant in the Bronx, a popular place for so-called gangster sit-downs. It’s perfect for us. A small family place, good food. During the scene, Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey dead. The scene, the action and more importantly the setting are the stuff of legend.
Crime fiction, like life, is full of stereotypes. There is something familiar about certain images, from overweight cops eating doughnuts to hardboiled detectives surviving on a diet of strong liquor and cigarettes. If you think about the traditional role of food in crime fiction your thoughts may turn at some point to scraps wolfed quickly on the hoof between arrests and paperwork, or in parked cars during stakeouts. Anything goes, as long it is laced with grease, sugar or salt (sometimes all three) and washed down with cheap, over stewed drip coffee from polystyrene cups. As long as it is bad for you, then food is good for you. At some point, however, all this changed. Somewhere, in the vast landscape of crime fiction, writers realised that food, if done properly, really could work. You may not have noticed it but there are some really clear examples of crime fiction writers using food, not as part of a stereotype, not as fuel, but as something to celebrate. Like something you might order in Louis Restaurant in the Bronx.
In terms of crime fiction, I am a big fan of stereotypes, but I am an even bigger fan of food. The Mark Dewar novels are peppered, if you’ll excuse the pun, with references to the food and drink of the time. These references are often mentioned in reviews and it was these reviews that first led me to explore the notion of how food is being used within crime fiction. One immediate example that leaps to mind is Nero Wolfe, created by Rex Stout. Wolfe’s love of food floods the stories he appears in, not just as a character trait but also as a plot device. In Too Many Cooks (1938) Wolfe attends a meeting of famous chefs only to have to step in when one of them is murdered. References to food are so common across the Nero Wolfe canon that in 1973 Stout’s publishers released The Nero Wolfe Cookbook which contains passages featuring the use of food in the stories accompanied by over 200 recipes. The character of Nero Wolfe is vastly overweight. If you read the cookbook you’ll appreciate why. Rex Stout is not the only writer to have trodden this path. Patricia Cornwell has offered up Scarpetta’s Winter Table (1998) and Food to Die For: Secrets From Kay Scarpetta’s Kitchen (2002) as recipe collections to accompany the more traditional crime-based books.
In a way, food is both the perfect vehicle for a writer’s desire to convey a sense of place and also an outstanding plot device. Descriptions of dishes and of restaurants can provide sensory delights to the reader. George Simenon’s descriptions of Parisian bistros in the Maigret novels are good examples of this. If you’ve read the Maigret books you’ll know that Mrs Maigret is a dab hand in the kitchen and the dishes she produces give a sense of the epicurean way the characters live. Similarly, Philip Marlowe’s assertion that he never married because I don’t like policemen’s wives is equally evocative, even if it does put Marlowe into the food-as-fuel camp. On the other hand, food can be used to disguise all manner of murderous intentions. Agatha Christie used food and drink to disguise poison in a substantial number of her stories and there are even examples of recent writers using food as their central theme. You don’t need to have read Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (2001), Fudge Cupcake Murder (2004) or Cream Puff Murder (2009), all by Joanne Fluke, to spot the pattern.
There is one writer however, who has woven food and a love of food, into his crime stories so expertly that the results are perhaps better than any tourist officer could ever hope to achieve. The fictional town of Vigàta, on the Sicilian coast, sounds like the perfect destination for someone wishing to indulge in a foodie holiday. The descriptions of the food are almost pornographic in their intensity without ever coming close to over-indulgence. If it weren’t for all the crime in Vigàta, I’d be there like a shot. As it is I will leave the restaurants, cafes and kitchens to Vigàta’s most famous son, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, the outstanding creation of the legendary Andrea Camilleri. In addition to Camilleri’s books and short stories, the character has been regularly portrayed on television since 1999. Firstly by Luca Zingaretti (Inspector Montalbano) and more recently by Michele Riondino (The Young Montalbano). Read this, from La danza del gabbiano – The Dance of the Seagull – (2009) and tell me it doesn’t make you hungry,
Adelina had gone overboard cooking for him, the works, aubergine parmigiana, pasta with sausage, caponata, aubergine dumplings, caciocavallo di ragusa and passuluna olives.
As works of crime fiction, Camilleri’s books and stories are outstanding. As examples of the way in which food can create a sense of place, time and character they are second to none. You can’t imagine the Montalbano stories without the food, or Pulp Fiction without the royale-with-cheese scene, Hannibal Lecter without fava beans and chianti, LA Confidential without the Formosa Cafe, The Sopranos without cannoli and Artie Bucco’s restaurant, or Sollozzo’s murder in The Godfather without Louis Restaurant. From The Last Supper to the concept of a final meal before execution, food haunts our dreams. No wonder then that characters like Montalbano feel compelled to eat so well. Rather than let crime and death put you off your food, why not use it to celebrate life? When done right these things are so much more than components of the story. They are the story.