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Hungry detectives: Why crime novelists write about food

Sicilian food

Crime fiction is the UK's second biggest selling literary genre, worth about £90m a year - but it's not just murder, mystery and good old-fashioned police work that has readers enthralled. Food is now very much a go-to narrative device, used to bring locations and characters to life.

A detective is on the trail of a murderer. The hours are long, the sleuth is constantly on the move and the pay isn't good.

So what do they eat?

Donuts, peanuts, a petrol station egg sandwich? All washed down with cupfuls of coffee?

These days literary crime-fighters are more likely to be eating "battered courgettes, fried until brown and then sprinkled with salt" or a plate of "buttery crusted pies of cream, greens and dill".

Eat like Montalbano:

Sardine beccafico

Keep it classic with a caponata

Taste the Mediterranean in sardine beccafico

Delight in an aubergine parmegiana

Try arancini with tomato and olive tapenade

Increasingly crime fiction features sleuths who pretty much double as guides to food cultures, where fiendish plots are woven around dishes, ingredients and the dinner table.

Writers Anne Zouroudi and Martin Walker include descriptions of dishes from rich food cultures, in Walker's case French, and Zouroudi's Greek, in their new novels that are so detailed that you could cook a meal from the pages.

Food writing within fiction still feels very fresh, says author of a Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw.

"In a lot of modern novels, it's difficult to write about sex without it becoming pornographic or just cliched, but you can do food," he explains.

Mr Forshaw says the rise of food in crime writing can be, in part, attributed to television.

"We now watch a lot of the adaptations like Inspector Montalbano, like Commissario Brunetti (novels written by Donna Leon), food is a central part of that as well. We get to see these incredible images of food being eaten with a Mediterranean backdrop. Reading the books will make you feel hungry, so will the television series."

Start Quote

I see his appetite for food as an affirmation of being alive in the face of continuous death”

End Quote Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano author

Andrea Camilleri, the author who has sold 10m books about Inspector Salvo Montalbano, is credited with paving the way for others, like Zouroudi and Walker.

Set in the fictional town of Vigata on the south coast of Sicily, neither Montalbano's character, nor the setting would make sense without the detail about food.

Montalbano comes alive most vividly when, he opens his fridge to food left by his housemaid Adelina, like in his latest novel, The Dance of The Seagull: "Adelina had gone overboard cooking for him, the works, aubergine parmigiana, pasta with sausage, caponata, aubergine dumplings, caciocavallo di ragusa (a Sicilian cheese) and passuluna olives."

As the plots develop so it seems does Montalbano's appetite. There are insights into the authentic street food such as arancini (fried balls of rice, coated with breadcrumbs and filled with a meat sauce), baked dishes such as pasta incaciata, descriptions of beccafico, (sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs and capers), and always bowls of caponata, the sweet and sour, and very traditional Sicilian aubergine dish.

What do real detectives eat?


Detective Bob Fenton explains how undercover work is also a reminder of the waiting, boredom, mundane diet that can come with crime-fighting:

"You're out following major criminals around under surveillance for long periods of time, it could go on for hours.

"If they stopped somewhere, and there was an opportunity, you'd grab a bite - say a McDonalds, kebab, or fish and chips, that style of eating."

Does 007 eat all the wrong things?

Andrea Camilleri reveals on Radio 4's Food Programme: "It's not about greed, I don't think of him as greedy, I see his appetite for food as an affirmation of being alive in the face of continuous death. Maybe eating expresses the pleasure of being alive."

Fan and lecturer in Italian politics at the Open University, Geoff Andrews says the first Montalbano novel was set in 1994, when the political system was in crisis.

"[Montalbano is] always frustrated by the bureaucracy, by the system, by corruption, but the one constant is the food, something that can't be corrupted, mustn't be corrupted. The food gives him reassurance," he explains.

So good is the writing, the audience is of a high calibre in the kitchen too.

Fan and chef Giorgio Locatelli says "you can learn a lot about Sicilian food from these crime stories".

"Montalbano doesn't faffle about with his food. He's very happy with some bread, olive, oil, parsley and a bit of lemon.

"One of his favourite things is red mullet served with courgette tips, a dish you wouldn't necessarily think of with Italian food, so the writing provides great insights."

Martin Walker, a former foreign correspondent whose latest novel, The Crowded Grave is part of a series featuring French country detective Bruno Courage.

Food for thought:

Sardines in Sicily

Hear more on Radio 4's Food Programme on Sunday or catch up on iPlayer

The Brit recently moved to the Perigord region, famous for its foie gras, cheese and venison, and where his novels are set.

The crimes Bruno has to solve often feel like an intrusion to long descriptions of food, cooking and eating.

Bruno is a great cook: "Back inside he dipped the sliced courgette one by one into light batter he'd made earlier and eased them into the hot fat, once they were brown and crisp… he sprinkled salt upon them."

"The food is a means of intelligence gathering," says Martin Walker.

"He knows all the secrets, he knows where all the bodies are buried and he hears all the gossip."

Anne Zouroudi's novels about a Greek detective called Hermes Diaktoros, are also based in a part of Europe the author moved to later in life, in her case, the Greek Islands.

She says: "I married a Greek man in a Shirley Valentine kind of way and really got to know what life in the islands was like.

"We ate very little that we didn't catch or kill or grow. It was a whole different life to the one I'd been used to. We used to keep live octopuses in the fridge."

Sherlock Holmes blue plaque Sherlock Holmes is an early example of a detective who likes to eat - ham and eggs and curried chicken, apparently

Six years later she returned to Britain after her relationship turned "somewhat sour", determined to write about her experience of Greek life.

Weaving throughout her stories is an account of Greek food culture, with passages that explain not just how ingredients are sourced and cooked, but also about the relationships built around food in a small and isolated community.

Her novel The Feast of Artemis is based on a murder with rivalry in the olive oil business as a backdrop, and her detective is also known as "The Fat Man".

Eat like a Greek:


Grill pork belly for juicy souvlakia

Whizz up a simple tzatziki

Share a Greek lamb with orzo

Delight with donuts called loukoumades

"The Fat Man took a while to review what was on offer, full bodied stews with pasta and potatoes, buttery crusted pies of feta, greens and dill, pan fried keftedes of octopus, cheese and beef, but most tempting of all was the kleftiko, the meat which fell from the bones and left them clean was being sliced and plated by men in women's aprons while others served tzatziki so spiced with garlic it burned the tongue."

But in fact, food has always been a facet of the crime novel.

Christopher Stocks, food writer for the Independent has studied food in the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.

While many associate Holmes with his 7% solution of cocaine, there are far more references, Christopher Stocks argues, to food in late Victorian London.

In The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, an important part of the plot revolves around a breakfast that includes not just ham and eggs but also curried chicken, and in the Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, Holmes presents Watson with a takeaway of the period which includes "a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, and a pate de foie gras pie".

Anne Zouroudi Anne Zouroudi's books follow a detective also known as "The Fat Man"

Across the Atlantic in 1930s Manhattan, Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe is described as weighing "a seventh of a tonne" and his crime solving is really just a means to financing his visits to restaurants and personal chef, Fritz.

Barry Forshaw says Wolfe is an "extreme example" a trend in that era.

"Looking at the golden age of crime writing of the 1930s and 1940s you would have Agatha Christie with Poirot, a detective who she makes it clear, loves fine food and wine, Nero Wolfe featured so much food that they could even publish a cookbook later on, and by the 1940s and 1950s it becomes even more prominent with detectives like Maigret.

"His wife is an haute cuisine chef, so she cooks him great meals," he explains.

French police Commissaire Jules Maigret (a detective created by Georges Simenon), discusses his cases with his wife as she cooks - showing how cooking and meals can provide technical assistance to the crime writer to move plots on.

It's a device also used by the American crime writer Sara Peretsky who wrote her first VI Warshawski novel in 1982.VI or Vic, is an American women PI.

"VI is robust, she can hold her own in a fight and she needs food to fuel what she's doing," says Sara Peretsky.

Why crime fiction pays:

Hand holding gun

"She often eats on the fly which means she spends a lot of money on dry cleaning because she's driving around town in her silk shirts spilling chilli dogs on them."

She says food is "a way of breaking action".

"Successful crime novels have rising and falling levels of intensity.

"If your hero is always on the edge of disaster it becomes uninteresting, and so food is one of the ways that the detective can have downtime and the reader can experience a lowering of the temperature."

Crime writing can be a place where you find some of the most revealing, detailed, beautiful and authentic food writing around.

On one level, it's a world we wouldn't wish to experience, but on another level it's a world that is, as Barry Forshaw says, deeply appetising,

"I've realised that with Montalbano and these other books, really do make you hungry, so I always make a point of having eaten a meal before reading."

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