Detectives and Their Food
By Carla Neggers
You are what you eat, or so the saying goes, but is that true for our favorite fictional detectives? Does their food reveal character or create character? After all, even a detective hot on the trail of a determined killer has to eat. For some, food is merely fuel. For others, it’s an experience to be savored. Eating can be a break from the world of crime, a way to avoid it, time to think or just something that needs to be done.
I’ve read about some mouthwatering meals, and some I wouldn’t go near. Here are ten new and longtime detectives with memorable relationships with food (for better or worse!):
VM Burns’s RJ Franklin
Burns introduces southern Indiana detective RJ Franklin in Travellin’ Shoes and the murder of the choir director at his church. He’s a self-described “fair-weather” member, but his godmother, Mama B, is there every Sunday. Mama B treats her godson to (and tempts him with) her home-cooking—fried corn, collard greens, fried pork chops, hot water cornbread and peach cobbler. Mouthwatering recipes included!
Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope
Ah, Vera. Northumberland’s down-to-earth DCI Vera Stanhope appreciates food but she’s hardly a foodie, and the less fuss, the better. Beer, pork pies, crusty bread and butter, warm milk with a splash of whisky at her bedside. As her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, says, she’s not one to turn up her nose at chocolate cake.
Robert Crais’s Joe Pike and Elvis Cole
Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are longtime friends and colleagues who have each other’s back, but that doesn’t mean they have the same taste in food. Badass Pike is a vegetarian who can whip up tofu dishes and tempting veggie bowls with a variety of spices. While Cole doesn’t disparage his partner’s cuisine, he also doesn’t fully partake and will happily indulge in burgers and pizza.
Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson
Colson, a retired Army Ranger, is partial to down-home cooking, mostly prepared by his Elvis-loving mother. Her fried chicken and sweet potato pie are Sunday favorites and she does some mean fried green tomatoes, always with sweet tea to wash them down. He often visits a local diner for breakfast, but his mother’s food is favored.
Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers
Dedicated Scotland Yard detectives Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton, and working-class Havers are a sharp contrast in attitudes about food (and everything else). He is fine dining and she…isn’t. Lynley is accustomed to having his meals prepared for him, and Havers is most likely just to grab something handy she can unwrap and eat or throw in the microwave. While he shows no favorite, she is not above a Scotch egg.
Christopher Huang’s Eric Peterkin
In his atmospheric debut novel, A Gentleman’s Murder, Huang delves into 1924 London with Lieutenant Peterkin, “late of the Royal Fusiliers.” Peterkin navigates elegant club dinners—he enjoys curried pheasant—but his favorite eatery is Shafi, a real-life Indian restaurant. And he firmly believes most things are improved “tenfold” with the addition of cheese. Onto something there, I think.
Robert Parker’s Spenser
Iconic private detective Spenser cooks a lot and he enjoys eating what he cooks, with standout breakfasts and dinners in particular. Huevos rancheros with green chilies and linguica instead of chorizo, chicken marinated in lemon, orange and ginger with endive and avocado salad with cornmeal and onion fritters are typical. He also appreciates a good clam shack. There is a cookbook of Spenser’s food.
John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport
You might go hungry reading a Lucas Davenport novel. By his own admission, Davenport isn’t into food, but even he has to eat. He’ll grab fast food or pop into a chain restaurants, and Diet Coke is a staple. Meals happen, if without much attention, but would we expect anything else of Davenport?
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe
Around since the 1930s, Nero Wolfe is a reluctant detective but an avid gourmet and gourmand. He relishes planning, eating and discussing food. His cook Fritz prepares the main meals, but Wolfe is not above sticking his nose in. Lunch and dinner are strictly observed in the dining room to exacting standards with duck, fixed in a variety of ways (roasted, braised with various sauces), a favorite. Anchovy toast is another repeat (I’ll pass!). He’s a stickler for properly prepared corn—shucked at the table and roasted for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Wolfe’s long-suffering cohort, Archie Goodwin, usually enjoys the meals, but he recognizes when Wolfe is using them to procrastinate. Archie loves a good corned beef on rye; Wolfe won’t have it in the house. There is a Nero Wolfe cookbook.
Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford
Befitting an ocean biologist, Doc Ford eats a lot of fish and seafood. He often prepares his own fish, but he also frequents a local restaurant and bar on Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast. In “real life,” White purchased the model of that restaurant and turned it into Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille (most ordered dish: Yucatan shrimp in butter, garlic, mild chilies, cilantro and Key Lime juice). He, too, has a cookbook.
Whether food shapes or reveals character—or both—it’s fun to see how our favorite detectives eat. Whose food habits are closest to your own? Have you ever tried one of the recipes? Tempted? I’ll leave sweetbreads to Nero Wolf, but I love a good veggie bowl and grilled fish.