Mystery Solved: Why Literature’s Greatest Detectives Are All Obsessed With Food

One day, while scrolling by Twitter, a post from Kitchen Arts Letters held my eye. The eminent New York City bookstore was offered a “Nancy Drew Cookbook” from a ’70s, combined by Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene “herself.” (Keene was a pseudonym of several ghostwriters, masculine and female, who wrote a dear mysteries over a years.) As a fan of Nancy Drew, retro recipes, and any intersection of food and literature, we found it too good to pass up.

When it arrived a few days later, we found we had purchased a cookbook that seemed to be combined from Nancy’s perspective. Peppered with cooking “clues” and recipe titles like “Captive Biscuits” and “Dancing Puppet Parfait,” a book was a charmingly cheesy interpretation of Nancy Drew as someone who was meddlesome in cooking, even yet she doesn’t spend many time home on food in a novels. Thankfully, she never done a offensive recipes — muffins done with mayonnaise, “peanut butter soup” — featured in a cookbook.

But as predestine would have it, a merger of this book stirred a family crony to give me dual some-more cookbooks formed on illusory investigator series, Lord Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L. Sayers and Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout, boring me deeper into a universe of food and mystery.

The Lord Peter Wimsey series, combined by Sayers between 1923 and 1937, and a Nero Wolfe series, combined by Stout between 1934 and 1975, were both renouned in their days. And in a depart from Keene’s book, in both their cookbooks, recipes were taken true from passages in a source material, creation transparent that a penetrating seductiveness in food was a elemental partial of both characters. These were group of sold tastes who knew accurately how to sequence an exquisite dinner, either during a grill or from their personal cooks.

They were not usually detectives, yet investigator gourmands: a investigator of overwhelming genius who obsesses over food, knows his tastes, and does not concede them for any reason. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, one of her many famous characters — he seemed in some-more than 30 novels and stories between 1920 and 1975 — provides another example. Each of these inclusive authors used food — and a entrance their characters had to it — to illustrate their characters’ high standing in society, cumulative by resources as good as knowledge. “For a exemplary detective, access to keen knowledge is a pivotal to elucidate a crime,” says Marta Usiekniewicz, doctoral claimant of American novel and enlightenment during a University of Warsaw. “Therefore, it usually total that they know as many about food.”


The Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, Christie’s protagonist in Murder on a Orient Express, among other books, is described as entrance from a medium upbringing and gaining amicable standing by his private investigator work. Ruled by a supportive stomach and a need for order, his tastes are strict and specific, so many so that his dishes contingency be consistently symmetrical, with toast cut into squares and eggs boiled to a same size. He loves to sup out, and is mostly found in superb dining bedrooms sipping mid-morning prohibited chocolate, tisanes, or digestifs beneath his impeccably waxed mustache.

Dorothy Sayers’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an English noble innate with a china ladle in his mouth. According to Mollie Freier, highbrow during Northern Michigan University, “Sayers once pronounced that she done Wimsey impossibly abounding given she herself was not — she could spend his income on fanciful things in a fictions.” In a books, Wimsey ceaselessly purchases excellent wines and food; he attends sharpened breakfasts, luncheons during a club, high teas, and dinners during restaurants and estates.

While Poirot and Wimsey were combined in a ’20s, during a time of wealth, their array continued by a ’30s. But a characters’ intemperate eating habits do not change, notwithstanding a mercantile downturn. This trope appears again in a Nero Wolfe series, even yet Stout’s initial book was published in 1934, shortly after a crash.

Born in Montenegro, Wolfe comes to America, and, with income warranted from investigator work, is means to squeeze a New York City unit furnished with a rooftop hothouse and a personal chef. He prefers never to leave his abode, so he has a partner in crime-solving who does all a legwork for a cases and runs culinary errands. Within his oasis, Wolfe feasts on costly mixture like anchovies, duckling, and shad roe, aka a egg weal of a American shad fish — a sweetmeat usually found on a East Coast in a spring. In a Wolfe books, there’s Capon Souvaroff (a castrated masculine duck baked with madeira and truffles) and an annual plate of starlings with virtuoso and polenta.

Most Americans would positively not have been means to means such things during a 1930s, as food author David Leite explains in Dining Through a Decades: 100 Years of American Food. “Popular dishes of a duration were inexpensive, one-pot meals,” Leite writes. “City dwellers, on a other hand, were flourishing on inexpensive dishes of prohibited dogs and hamburgers during automats such as Horn Hardart’s. Bread and soup lines snaked around a block.”


All 3 of these characters seem to boyant outward these informative shifts. “The escapist component of classical investigator fiction is benefaction in all of these authors,” Usiekniewicz says. “They are meant to be fantasies that, during slightest on a surface, benefaction immorality as a unaccompanied aberration, while a Depression was a systemic problem. Classic investigator novella of that time frequency dealt with systemic problems.”

That was a seductiveness to readers as well. In his 1965 letter “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Kenneth Millar, who wrote crime novella underneath a pseudonym Ross Macdonald, argues that “nostalgia for a absolved society” fueled readers’ seductiveness in “the normal English investigator story and a countless American counterparts.” He continues: “neither wars nor a retraction of supervision and societies miscarry that prolonged weekend in a nation residence that is often, with some-more or reduction comatose symbolism, cut off by a disaster in communications from a outward world.” Thus, a investigator epicure continues to sup in old-world luxury.

As these detectives do not wish for food, their creators are means to benefaction their dining habits as an egghead endeavor. “Eating was now not usually a earthy pleasure, it was also an egghead research,” Christie writes of Poirot in her 1952 book Mrs McGinty’s Dead. “For in between meals, he spent utterly a lot of time acid out and imprinting down probable sources of new and tasty food.”

In other words, “food is really an indicator of amicable status, yet it also highlights a informative collateral of any detective,” Usiekniewicz says. “It is oftentimes used as shorthand for an whole type.”

Wimsey attended Oxford, yet he flaunts his amicable standing many clearly when he describes food, either he’s rising an paper to Bradenham Ham in Unnatural Death or grouping a ideal plate for a intensity think in The Unpleasantness during a Bellona Club. He describes this plate as yet it were a square of literature: “Huitres Musgraves…fried in their shells… with small strips of bacon” are followed by tortue vraie, Filet de solitary “a hyphen between a voluntary and a categorical theme,” phasion roti with Pommes Byron, followed by a “dry and crisp” salad and souffle glace. (This solemnly stoical cooking is in fact really tighten to an tangible menu during Claridge’s Hotel in London, whose dining room has captivated a abounding and famous given 1812.)

While Poirot and Wimsey are counsel about a dishes they consume, their tastes are narrow: Poirot prefers his local European delicacies, like croissants, omelets, and soothing cheeses; he generally frowns on English cooking, and he expresses a pinnacle fear when he is done to try Chinese food. Wimsey’s tastes are conservatively British, and when he is brought to a Soviet Club (where a Bolsheviks gather) in Clouds of Witness, he proclaims that “Cooking’s beastly, a group don’t shave, and a review gets my goat,” creation it transparent that he is not partial of a new, magnanimous set of revolutionaries.

According to Usiekniewicz, food in a books can be a “means of including or incompatible people from a given community,” and in this case, Poirot and Wimsey’s tastes are exclusive.

But Wolfe cultivated a good affinity for unfamiliar dishes during his travels, and is described as eating everything: from Brazilian lobster salad to hunkiev beyandi (an Armenian plate featuring lamb kebab and pressed eggplant). His flaunts expanded believe of unfamiliar cuisines, as exemplified when he explains a Hindi or Urdu start of a word “shish kebab” in The Father Hunt. Wolfe’s appreciation of unfamiliar cultures extends to American cuisine as well. He enjoys dishes of a American South, such as Kentucky burgoo and Creole curds and cream, in Death of a Doxy, and defends American cuisine in a ardent debate to a cook from San Remo in Too Many Cooks.

In his 2010 book Full Circle: How a Classical World Came Back to Us, Ferdinand Mount compares literary detectives to a figure of a “antique Oracle,” citing their “powers of observation, logic and deduction.” He links this brainpower to their attribute with food, writing: “A chairman who knows about food is regarded as meaningful that many some-more about life… and it is conspicuous how mostly one of a outlines of a detective’s autarchic comprehension and understanding is his comprehensive believe of food and drink.”

Despite vital in a bubble, Wolfe’s tastes seem on-going for a time period: In The Final Deduction, he declares that “all we indispensable to know about any tellurian multitude was what they ate.” Stout shows us that Wolfe thinks deeply about food and uses it as a lens to try and know other cultures. Similarly, readers can ascertain a culture, politics, and worldview of any these detectives — by saying how they eat.

Mackensie Griffin has a master’s grade in food studies from NYU. She writes about food enlightenment and runs a literary repast bar called Table of Contents. Cryssy Cheung is a NYC-based freelance illustrator and art executive during Viacom network TV Land.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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