Top Ten Culinary Mysteries
Le mauvais gout mène au crime.
Bad taste leads to crime.
_____Baron Adolphe De Mareste (1784-1867)
- “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste” from Lord Peter Views the Body, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1928
This was included in Sayers’s first short story collection and involves a blind tasting of vintage wines, the identification of which will separate the impostors (two claiming to be Lord Peter and one named Death Bredon). In Vino Veritas and Bredon (Sayers fans knew who he was from the start, of course) names them all, and the secret formula for poison gas for King and Country is his prize. A delightful concoction that showcases the author’s vast knowledge of food and wine.
- Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout, 1938
Stout, in a rare departure, takes Nero Wolfe out of his New York City comfort zone to a resort in West Virginia, the setting for a gathering of the crème de la crème of international chefs—Les Quinze Maîtres, The 15 Masters. Wolfe is after a well-guarded secret recipe.
When asked what was the best meal in English literature, Nora Ephron replied, “The banquet in Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout.” Coming at the end of the book, it is Nero Wolfe’s impassioned defense of American cuisine, delivering a hearty slap in the face to the skeptical, sophisticated chefs attending, with dishes such as Philadelphia Snapper Soup, Terrapin Stewed in Butter, Planked Porterhouse Steak, Boone County Missouri Ham, Creole Tripe, Lobster Newburg, Beaten Biscuits, Sally Lunn, Pineapple Sherbet, and Sponge Cake.
- Cook Up A Crime, Charlotte Murray Russell, 1951 (Reprint, Rue Morgue Press, 1998)
As Nero Wolfe is most certainly the father of culinary crime, Russell’s Jane Amanda Edwards takes her place as mother, first appearing earlier in Murder at the Old Stone House (1935). Jane was a breakthrough in detective fiction —a full-figured, unmarried woman of a certain age with sharp powers of detection and a sense of humor—she refers to herself as “old x-ray Jane.” Russell wrote twelve books in the series, all of which celebrate the Midwestern comfort food Jane Amanda enjoys while she invariably solves murders before the police do—think chicken and dumplings, lemon meringue pie, and fudge cake. This book, too, involves a quest for a much-desired recipe.
- The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie, 1960
In the foreword, Christie writes, “This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection.’ I am the Chef!” The book, she notes, includes two main courses, a selection of entrées, and a sorbet. The title story is the gem and paean to the Christmases of her youth, lovingly described. Poirot finds the Christmas Day dinner—starting with oyster soup and turbot before moving on to roast turkey, boiled turkey, and sirloin of beef before finishing up with mince pies, trifle, and the plum pudding—surprisingly tasty! If for no other reason, read it for Poirot’s remark upon finding the Bachelor Button charm in his slice.
- Someone is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe, Nan and Ivan Lyons, 1976
This is one of the most enduring non-series classics in culinary crime. The Lyonses wrote several others in the genre, but this is the pièce de résistance and also quite tasty in the screen version. Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978) features an outstanding cast: George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Phillippe Noiret, and especially Robert Morley. One by one the chefs are dispatched in a manner that relates to his signature dish. Readers will never look at a duck press the same way again.
- Monsieur Pamplemousse A Gastronomic Mystery, Michael Bond, 1983
Some know this author as the creator of Paddington, but to my mind he is deliciously—and hilariously—tied to a former member of the Sûreté, undercover inspector for Le Guide Monsieur Aristide Pamplemousse and his bloodhound, Pommes Frites, both of whom have exquisite taste. This first title in the series sets the standard. Happily, there are fifteen more—all a delight, although I have a special fondness for Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure. Read it with Dorothy Cannell’s The Thin Woman and a good steak/frites!
- The Baked Bean Supper Murders, Virginia Rich, 1983
This is the second in Rich’s three-book series with amateur sleuth Eugenia Potter, a widow in her sixties. After Rich’s death, Nancy Pickard completed a manuscript and wrote two more from notes Rich had left. This book is a portrait of Down East life that has all but vanished—Grange Hall suppers, lobstering with just a plumb line and a compass, the post office as the main source of news, and Saturday night baked beans from the bean pot that had been sitting overnight on the wood stove. Again, it’s a celebration of regional cuisine—blueberry buckle, lobster pie, and steamed brown bread. Virginia Rich was the first to include recipes in her books for the dishes mentioned. The recipes in Too Many Cooks were only included in the early editions.
8.The Thin Woman An Epicurean Mystery, Dorothy Cannell, 1984
A treasure hunt, a murderously eccentric British family, a quixotic will, a country house in ruins, and quite possibly the most engaging and funny heroine in mystery fiction—Ellie Haskell—are the ingredients for this romp, the first in the series. Despite the fact that it chronicles Ellie’s weight loss, a condition of inheriting the fortune, the meals are splendid. The love interest, who must write a book to get his share of the lolly, happens to be a chef, so while Ellie nibbles salad, Ben is constantly whipping up meals that give lie to the notion that British food is inedible. Well, perhaps those sausage rolls at the train stations.
- A Deepe Coffyn, Janet Laurence, 1989
This is the first in cookery expert Laurence’s ten-book Darina Lisle series and I had a hard time deciding between it and A Tasty Way to Die (1990), but the scholarly details about the meal the chef/ detective prepares for the Society of Historical Gastronomes tipped the scale, as well as the first sentence, “The head gave Darina a baleful look.”
- Catering to Nobody, Diane Mott Davidson, 1990
Needs must and when caterer Goldy Schulz’s business is shut down by the Board of Health in the small Colorado town where she and her young son live, the only solution is to find the murderer who poisoned the food at her event. Davidson, whose series now numbers seventeen books, was the next author, after Virginia Rich, to include recipes. Truly desserts to die for.
Note: My choices are illustrations of that perfect pairing—“Whodunit and Whoateit.” Pour me a glass of Duboeuf Beaujolais, Andrew, and let’s talk about all the others I didn’t have room to include: Janice Weber’s Devil’s Food, the great food in Robert B. Parker’s books, and Conan Doyle’s Victorian fare, plus a myriad of mystery cookbooks. The one Robert Courtine did for Simenon’s seventieth birthday, Madame Maigret’s Recipes, is my favorite.
The Body in the Wardrobe is the 23rd in Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild series. There is a great deal of food in it! She has also published for middle grade and YA readers as well as a collection of short stories, Small Plates (2014), and a series cookbook, Have Faith in your Kitchen (Orchises Press). She has been awarded Agathas for Best First, Best Novel, and Best SS and also was nominated for additional Agathas, an Edgar, Macavity, Mary Higgins Clark, and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She is the recipient of Malice Domestic 28th’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Maine and Massachusetts.