Monday, December 18, 2006

Food in literature. murder mysteries.

I was reading some mystery novels recently, when it occurred to me that the food in these mysteries is always lovely, sandwiches and beer or perfectly prepared Dover sole or hot scones with honey and endless cups of tea, in between chasing down murderers and blackmailers and other nefarious creatures. In Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, a man is murdered, poisoned by a sweet omelette laced with cyanide (which, in the form of powdered grains, had neatly been introduced into the egg through a crack in the shell) . His murderer has carefully planned the night's menu with dishes that are shared by them both (the leftovers later consumed by the cook and housemaid in the kitchen), thereby providing him with an alibi - he has cleverly been dosing himself with cyanide so that he is now immune to the poison - a dinner that includes a clear consommé, a chicken stew, and the aforementioned jam-filled sweet omelette, prepared tableside by the murderer himself. I have always wanted to try all of these items, minus the cyanide, of course.

The food seen in murder mysteries is always so enticingly, lavishly described, even as they are the means to murder. I remember a chicken pot pie in Something in the Water, by Charlotte Macleod, where the canny murderer sent a cyanide pill (painted green, so as to resemble a pea) flinging across the room (with the help of a slingshot) into the pie so that the intended victim would eat it and expire, suddenly, collapsing ungracefully upon his still-laden plate. (Since then I have never been able to eat chicken pot pie without poking cautiously at my peas, even though I doubt anyone would try to kill me that way). And while solving these mysteries the erstwhile detectives feast on all manner of delicious things cooked by wives and cooks and suspects.

Then there are poisons slipped into drinks, icy cold sweetlime or comforting hot milk, or cocoa, or tea and coffee. Usually, near the end of the story, the heroine is offered something hot before bedtime, to help her sleep (rather ominously, since if she drank it, she would certainly never wake up again). This is accompanied by a rather long-winded confession from the murderer, who cannot help but boast of his or her cunning, since the heroine will not be alive to tell anyone. (Often, when the heroine manages to escape death by not drinking the poisoned hot milk, the murderer drinks it while no one is paying attention and is spared the indignity of a trial). Why anyone would accept a drink from someone they suspected of murder is beyond me.

If I remember correctly, in ancient times, feudal lords had employed tasters to make sure that their feasts were not poisoned. Rings held secret caches for poisons to be slipped into a drink or a dish. A quiet murder, without any need for physical violence, not like stabbing or strangling or shooting. A delicious sort of death. Until, of course, the agony of dying a slow death from poison takes over. But I suppose one can't have everything.

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