THE GOURMET PRIVATE EYE

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‘When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand,’ wrote Raymond Chandler in The Gentle Art of Murder. These days he might just as well have replaced the gun with a sauté pan or chef’s knife.

Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlow,  had a  certain fastidiousness when it came to drink. The whole plot of The Long Goodbye kicks off on the correct way to make a Gimlet – “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats Martinis hollow” says Terry Lennox while chatting to Marlow at a bar.  Marlow wouldn’t be the last detective, private or otherwise, to have lived off booze, but he doesn’t seem to have been much interested in higher gastronomy , makes him unusual in the genre. Even Sam Spade  his great predecessor in the hard-boiled school of private eyes, settled down to lab chops, baked potato and sliced tomato  at San Francisco’s famous John’s Grill in The Maltese Falcon. Marlow’s one redeeming quality is that he had a prop respect for breakfast – ‘Canadian bacon and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast’). Note the ‘Canadian bacon.’ That’s connoisseurship for you.

Food and drink, have been part of the fabric of the detective story from the very beginning.  Sherlock Holmes says of his landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Hobson ‘Her cuisine is a little limited, but she has a good idea of breakfast as a Scotswoman’. Holmes clearly liked to eat well  – ‘A quite epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humbler lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate-de-foie-gras pie and a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles’  (The Noble Bachelor). And, perhaps not surprisingly,  he had some characteristically idiosyncratic ideas about  his wine\food matching. ‘There is a cold partridge in the sideboard, Watson, and a bottle of Montrachet. Let us renew our energies before we make a fresh call upon them’ (The Veiled Lodger). Sounds very odd to me, although an Alsatian Riesling of a riper vintage and some bottle age might pass muster.

However, the most diverting example of his gourmet activities comes in The Bruce-Partington Plans, He sends instructions to Watson – ’Am dining at Goldoni’s Restaurant, Gloucester Road, Kensington. Please come at once and join me here. Bring with you a jemmy, a dark lantern, a chisel and a revolver.’  Have Jay Rayner, Marina O’Loughlin or Giles Goren have ever thought of dining with a jemmy, a dark lantern , a chisel and a revolver to hand? Quite possibly, now I come to think about it.

Key ingredient

If Sherlock Holmes’s eating habits are lightly sketched in, they lie at the heart of Simenon’s Maigret, whose passion for the bourgeois delights of the traditional French kitchen, not to mention brandy taken at any time of the day, helps define his very nature. But of all modern thriller heroes, Hannibal Lecter is probably the most famous example of a character defined by his appetite: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” (Silence of the Lambs). Cannabalism and cuisine, a very contemporary combination.

American crime writers tend to fetishise their culinary (and drinking) prowess. Robert B Parker, uses food to point up the cultured and sensitive side of his hero, Spenser, going into considerable detail as he does so, and thereby hangs a problem. Give too much detail, and you invite imitation.  In “School Days,” Spenser, makes a dish of cranberry beans, diced steak, and fresh corn, dressed with olive oil and cider vinegar. “I shelled the beans from their long, red-and-cream pods and dropped them in boiling water and turned down the heat and let them simmer.” Adam Gopnik, who knows thing or two about food,  decided to recreate Spenser’s culinary masterpiece and wrote about the outcome in an article about literary culinary creations  the New Yorker .

‘I carried on with the recipe: Spenser takes a small steak from the refrigerator and dices it, sautés it, and then mixes it with the beans. I did this, and, honestly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Maybe I didn’t do it right—there is a certain lack of specificity about what kind of steak he’s using and just how long he keeps it in the pan—but I found that my steak dried out when it was diced and cooked, and, anyway, didn’t have enough salty punch to play off against the floury blandness of the beans.’

The moral is that if you give a description of a dish verging on a recipe, make sure it’s a good one; although Gopnik does conclude  ‘It’s a nice dish, worth interrupting the murders for.’

Really? I think not.

A taste for violence

Hannibal Lecter brings a keen discrimination to his gourmet experiments. He’s quite specific about the aperitif before his cannibalistic consumption – Lillet, that rather outré wine-based tipple from Podensac, that’s been around since 1887. And he pairs human liver with a ‘big Amarone’ in the book. This was dumbed down to a more widely recognised ‘nice Chianti’ in the film, which misses the point completely. Lecter is a connoisseur and a snob. 

Lecter shares his taste for Lillet with James Bond, another snob posing as a connoisseur. In Casino Royale, Ian Fleming came up with a ‘Vesper Martini – ‘Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.’ Notice the careful product placement of Gordon’s gin and the Kina Lillet. These days, however, the name of the gin would be down to the highest bidder, the vodka would have been precisely specified and the Lillet 

Although not strictly speaking a detective, James Bond exemplifies the apogee of food and drink snobbery prevalent in Ian Fleming’s day.  Actually, snobbery full stop, as Colin Watson points out in his delightful book, Snobbery with Violence. 

Only the most expensive of everything will do, from cars to cigars, from drink to food. Dom Perignon or Taittinger champagne (Bollinger in the films),  to first growth clarets (no La Tache or Romanée Conti) and cigars (Romeo y Julieta). 

Fleming’s novels are a  slew of product placement used to embroider some very debatable gastronomic obsessions:  Beluga caviar and  toast; rosé champagne with shellfish or, worse, roast grouse;  vodka martinis shaken not stirred and other attendant vulgarities. He even had his cigarettes made for him, at Morlands in Grosvenor Street. (Morlands really existed  In a thrall to the exotic, I used to  have cigarettes made for me there. They were oval, a blend of Russian and Egyptian tobaccos. Long gone, sadly.)

Cigarettes aside, I’ve always thought of James Bond as a hopeless vulgarian masquerading as a connoisseur. In You Only Live Twice, Bond says ”I like sake, especially when it is served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”  His Japanese oppo, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, impressed, says, “For a European you are exceptionally cultivated.” Oh, phooey. Different sakes get served at different temperatures, as any fule kno.

Murder on the menu

In a diverting essay, ‘Pen, Pencil and Poison ’ Oscar Wilde quotes the Victorian murderer, Thomas Wainewright commenting on his poisoning of Helen Abercrombie,’ Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.’  One of the more reprehensible motives for killing someone, with strychnine in her supper in Wainewright’s case.

Food and poisoning go hand in hand, or fork and plate, the one being used to disguise the other. Although poisoning  crops up in Sherlock Holmes (The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’), generally it’s a sub-genre dominated by women and one in which food is used to disguise/convey the poison in question. In her 1930 classic, Strong Poison, Dorothy L Sayers had her heroine Harriet Vane stand trial for poisoning her ex-lover with arsenic in a sweet omelette. The sweet omelette has rather gone out of fashion. Perhaps that’s why. (But if you’re interested, you can find recipes for them in the Constance Spry Cookery Book).

Agatha Christie also had a penchant for poison tucked away within some toothsome treat or other, as in the Miss Marple mystery A Murder is Announced, in which émigré housekeeper Mitzi bakes a cake for Dora Bunner’s birthday tea. “‘Impossible to make such a cake. I need for it chocolate and much butter, and sugar and raisins,'” she tells her employer, Miss Blacklock, who suggests using a tin of butter sent from America and raisins that were being kept for Christmas, along with a “slab of chocolate and a pound of sugar”. A Murder is Announced was published in 1950, when rationing was still much in evidence. 

Mitzi is delighted. “‘It will be rich, rich, of a melting richness! And on top I will put the icing – chocolate icing – I make him so nice – and write on it Good Wishes. These English people with their cakes that tastes of sand, never never, will they have tasted such a cake. Delicious, they will say – delicious'” – but is not so impressed with the name it is given, Delicious Death. Bunner – known as Bunny – is later found dead from poisoning. Food to die for, you might say.

Mise-en-place

Food also takes on the function of  setting the scene, of  establishing cultural colour and definition. Food in Simenon’s Maigret novels isn’t simply about the appetites of the Chief Inspector. Dishes and the places in which they are served help create the vivid intimacy of the milieu. Simenon had the gift of creating a sense of character and place with extraordinary precision and economy.

Nicholas Freeling was another master of the food-as-evocation-of-place in his now sadly largely forgotten Van der  Valk novels about a Dutch detective who liked to eat his salt herring “the way the Dutch do, holding it up above his mouth like a seal in the zoo”. Freeling knew what he was talking about. He was an experienced chef and wrote two delightful books about his experiences working in various kitchens in Holland, France and the UK.

In his Lew Archer novels, Ross Macdonald, uses food as social image – ’The waiter appeared and gave a me a chance to break loose. He transferred from his tray a small sandwich on a plate, a glass of water, a teacup with half an inch pf whisky at the bottom, an empty tea-pot, and a glass of something he had telepathically brought along for the girl.

‘That will be six dollars, sir.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Two dollars per drink, sir. Two dollars for the sandwich.’

I lifted the upper layer of the sandwich and looked at the slice of cheese it contained. It was as thin as gold leaf and almost as expensive.’ We all know those moments and bars.

In certain cases food takes over the character, plot and place entirely.  You get the impression that the adventures of Andrea Camillieri’s Sicilian charmer, Commissario Montalbano, exist largely as vehicles for the hero’s passion for the dishes of his locality. He spends so much time eating,  sometimes it’s surprising that he gets round to solving the mystery.

You could argue that this gastronomic overkill is justified as the novels are about Camillieri’s beloved Sicily, and food is the lingua franca through which Sicilians communicate with each other. However, when pleasures of the descriptions of the meals supersede convolutions of plot, then the plot becomes a vehicle for the food , and that somewhat defeats the purpose of the book. Incidentally,  Camilleri named his detective in honour of the Spanish writer and intellectual Manuel Vasquez Montalban, who created his own gastronome private eye, Pepe Carvalho, an acerbic Catalan with a weakness for rice dishes and a fish stew.

Total food

Even more than Montalbano or Carvalho, one detective hero who embraces food as character, food as plot device, food as digression, food as snobbery,  – Rex Stout’s great creation, Nero Wolfe.

Wolfe is defined by food. He only works in order to pay for his passion for higher gastronomy and the 10,000 orchids he grows on the roof terrace at the top of his house. Is he the only private eye with a personal chef, Fritz Brenner? Food helps shape the great detective, the stories and sometimes the plot. There is one novel, Too Many Cooks in which ‘Take fifteen master cooks…place then in a hotel in West Virginia …sprinkle with professional jealousy and stir until trouble thickens’s the blurb says.’ There is even The Nero Wolfe Cook Book, replete with recipes Capon Souvarof, Duck Mondor,  Kidneys Mountain Style, and Sturgeon Fumé a` la Muscovite.  I confess that I’ve never tried these recipes, but I’m inclined to trust them because I learned how to cook scrambled eggs from The Mother Hunt – 

‘The client admitted to Wolfe, that she didn’t know how to scramble eggs … He admitted to her, in my hearing that, forty was more minutes than you could expect a housewife (!) to spend exclusively on scrambling eggs, but he maintained that it was impossible to do it to perfection in less with each and every particle exquisitely firm, soft and moist.’ Wolfe is absolutely right in this. Forty minutes, not a minute less.

Nero Wolfe is the apotheosis of the gourmet private eye. With his faithful leg man and Boswell, Archie Goodwin, he first appeared in Fer-de-lance in 1934 and finally bowed out in 1975, his weight, ‘one seventh of a ton’, and his acuity undiminished. Wolfe is a man of impeccably snobbish tastes, gargantuan appetite, curmudgeonly manner and, like his creator, liberal values.  Like his friend, Plum Wodehouse, Stout had the gift of creating a world that never ages or stales. And the stories are written with a crisp grace, pace and good humour  that a good many modern writers would do well to learn from. Connoisseurship, character and easy reading go hand in hand.

(Un-)Savoury

If food and drink help define social and/or cultural context or character in thrillers, the outlook is bleak. There’s a whole recent school – actually, not so much a school as a Borstal – of  Scandinavian, Scottish.American and now Manchester noir in which the protagonists have a drink/drug/family problem, and frequently all three. It’s a wonder they have the energy to get out of bed in the morning. Like Janet Evanovitch’s effervescent heroine, Stephanie Plum, with her passion for junk food, Tasty Kakes in particular,  and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who appears to live off McDonald’s and KFC, they survive on fast food, booze and drugs without any care about its provenance or concern for social decencies. They’re probably a more accurate reflection of modern consumption and mores, but they make for depressing reading.

These days private eyes and policemen are rather more inclined to discuss the characteristic qualities of different sources of cannabis, e, ketamine or heroin than they are to debate the virtues of different vintages of Haut Brion or the correct temperature at which to serve caviar. Call me a snob, but I rather lament passing of the days of homicide, hauteur and haute cuisine.

Mind you, now I come to think about it,  Sherlock Holmes was the original socially dysfunctional drug addict. Plus ça change and all of that.

2 thoughts on “THE GOURMET PRIVATE EYE

  1. nice to have Freeling’s books as a chef remembered – Cook’s Book and Kitchen Book I seem to recall. Observations on parsimonious French chefs and incompetent British ones very well made

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