I love reading and I love eating so it stands to reason I’d enjoy mysteries that involve food. I’ve been reading about amateur sleuths who solve murders and prepare great food since the early days of the “culinary cozy.” I now have lots of favorites including one about a chef who makes gourmet bloods for her vampire brother. I don’t use her recipes, however.
To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed reading cookbooks. I’ve actually read more than I’ve used for cooking. Sometimes they provide a history of the town or church that created them or of the family and the meals they’ve enjoyed through the years. Either way, it makes for good reading on a lazy afternoon. My mother uses her cookbooks as journals, recording the event and date that she prepared a dish. Reading her cookbooks brings back wonderful memories of happy times.
I was recently lucky enough to chat with four writers whose mysteries feature munching and murder. All of these lovely ladies provide delicious recipes for readers and make their characters completely believable by using food as an integral part of the story.
As anyone knows, the first thing to do when planning a big event is to talk with the caterer. Goldy Bear Shulz removed herself and her young son from an abusive relationship and established herself as one of the top caterers in fictional Aspen Meadows, Colorado.
Diane Mott Davidson published her first mystery starring Goldy in 1990 and has put out a book almost yearly since then. She said recently that she had difficulty selling publishers on the idea of murder and food being together. “When I think of how hard it was to get Catering to Nobody published, I just shake my head. Editors told my agent, ‘No one is putting recipes into mysteries now.’ Virginia Rich was dead, and no one had used a working caterer as a main character and put recipes in his/her books before,” she said. “Now culinary mysteries are a whole sub-genre.”
I wasn’t familiar with Virginia Rich but was pleased to find she was basically the “mother” of this type of cozy mystery. Her character, Eugenia Potter, was a widow and chef who lived on a ranch in Arizona and had a home in a small town on the Maine coast. Her books included recipes, and after she died in 1985, her family asked Nancy Pickard to continue the series using Virginia’s notes and Nancy wrote three books to complete it.
I love the way Diane gave Goldy a wonderful home base by marrying her to the steadfast Tom Shulz, who is a homicide detective. He’s a thoughtful and perceptive man, and though he sometimes gets frustrated with Goldy’s need to help him solve crimes, he also cooks dinner for her (which is sexier than great abs for me) and gives her son unconditional love.
Diane says she works on the plot for the mystery first and then creates the food to accompany whatever party or event Goldy needs to cater. “I talk to one or more caterers to see what they would serve at these events. Sometimes I will cater an event with (like a wedding reception) to see how much food they prepare in advance (most of it as it happens) and how it is served.”
She also prepares and tests all the recipes and uses them at home all the time. “Our family particularly loves Goldy’s Garlic Lamb Chops, which were in Crunch Time,” Diane said. “I got the idea for this wonderfully flavorful and succulent dish while trimming the fat on lamb chops. I never thought the recipe was a big deal until I made dinner for a friend whose husband was sick. I took her the lamb chops along with twice-baked potatoes, the Caprese Salad from the book, and the Crunch Time Cookies. She’s British, and when she said the lamb chops were the best she’d ever had and she would love the recipe, I thought I would include it in the book.”
Crunch Time is the latest book in the series.
Who are her taste testers? “My husband, our kids, our friends and neighbors, the UPS man, and the FedEx man; if the final version of a cookie can get past them, it can get past anyone.”
In searching for mysteries, Diane says she looks at various cases and if she feels a strong emotional attachment to them, she knows she needs to write about that particular subject. She has also said in various interviews that she wanted Goldy to be a survivor of spousal abuse. As a volunteer counselor, she saw that it transcended status or position, and she wanted Goldy to be one of the women who had made it successfully to the other side.
That is so cool. I’m sure Goldy is a hero to many women.
The next item on our virtual menu is cheese, which is delicious at any point during the meal: as an appetizer, entrée, or dessert.
Fromagerie Bessette or, as it is affectionately known, The Cheese Shop, is where Avery Aames dishes up tasty mysteries in Providence, Ohio. Avery, who is also Daryl Wood Gerber, takes us through the world of cheese with her wonderful heroine, Charlotte Bessette. Fortunately, Charlotte’s mysteries are as delicious as her recipes.
One of the treats for me is the way Avery describes characters like Charlotte’s cousin, Matthew: “Matthew bounded across the natural pine floor like a long-limbed Great Dane.” Or Vivian Williams, who owns the local antique shop, who “reminded me of a clipper ship, aloof and elegant, sails unfurled, her chin-length hair in a flip, the flaps of her Ann Taylor suit jacket flying wide.” She also deals with Matthew’s adorable twin daughters and her French grandparents, who opened the “cheesery” many years ago.
Daryl said she didn’t make the recipes mentioned in the book at first, but now she does for the blog she writes so she can test them. However, when working on a book, the murder is the first element of the plot she works with and then she moves to the plot and subplot, making a chart of all the scenes day by day. She obviously loves cooking so featuring cheese in her mysteries was the perfect idea because of its limitless possibilities.
“Like Charlotte, I really enjoy making quiches, so the ham and pineapple quiche in The Long Quiche Goodbye is a favorite,” Daryl said. “I adore fondue, so the blue cheese fondue offered in Lost and Fondue is one of my pet dishes. And in Clobbered by Camembert, I came up with a brunch picnic that includes pancakes with melted Gouda and figs. Divine.”
Clobbered by Camembert was just released in early February and is the third book in the series.
As you can see, Charlotte has become very real to Daryl. “One of the things I love about writing this series is getting into the mind of Charlotte, the cheese shop owner. There are times I truly think like her and decide which choice she should make based on my ‘inner Charlotte voice.’ When she’s impulsive, I search for justification that leads her to make a decision. This is just plain fun, and when she describes a cheese, my mouth waters right along with her. I’m not kidding!”
There’s a cheese and wine shop near me and I love the way they have samples on the counter. No doubt I buy more than I would if they didn’t do that. Do you suppose the shop owners know that?
So with the main course and the cheeses out of the way, tomorrow I’ll be talking desserts and coffee with Virginia Lowell and Cleo Coyle.
Try to deny I haven’t revved your appetite for more!
Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at womenofmystery.net, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which is in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.