In mystery and crime fiction, as in life, characters exhibit degrees of good and evil, failure and success, they live and die and, unless they are robots or androids, they need to eat.
Food had always been present and often telling in my novels. Whether a question of what they eat, where they eat, when they eat, if they have an opportunity to eat—food can reveal much about the characters and their relationships.
And meetings in cafés and restaurants can make for delicious encounters.
Jake Diamond, the protagonist in four novels, works out of a private investigation office above an Italian salumeria in San Francisco’s North Beach. Food is always nearby. COUNTING TO INFINITY begins:
The scent of deep-fried calamari floated in through my office window like an invitation to triple bypass surgery.
The delicatessen also serves to highlight the difference in the eating habits of Diamond and his associate Darlene Roman. Darlene does not eat meat, while Jake, as all good Russian-Italian-Americans, cannot do without it. In CIRCLING THE RUNWAY, when Jake voices strong dislike for Darlene’s decision to act as bait for a sexual predator, Darlene reminds him:
You don’t like tofu either, but that never stopped me.
Describing food can add color and taste, and the presence of food can play into the action. In COUNTING TO INFINITY, Jake describes a meeting with his nemesis in a Chicago airport:
Between the chairs stood a glass-topped table holding a silver tray covered with tiny sandwiches, crackers, and a mound of foie gras that cost some poor fowl a lot more than an arm and a leg. The bread was ink-jet black, the crusts had been cut off, and the beef spilling from the corners was so rare it made tartare look overdone. The crackers were multi-grain, ten or eleven at least. They had the appearance of untanned shoe leather. The chopped liver looked as appetizing as corned beef hash. Granted, I wasn’t very hungry, and I’d had my fill of goose for the day. The cinnamon roll that I inhaled while dashing to make take-off was like eating a down comforter.
Later, the same food tray adds flavor to a physical confrontation:
I began to turn toward the door when a cannonball, which had to be Ralph Battle’s fist, struck me in the back between the shoulder blades and knocked me straight to the floor. My right elbow hit the food tray, flipping it end over end into the air. The pâté did a fine job of turning a Norman Rockwell on the wall behind Lansdale into a Jackson Pollock.
Food can help set the occasion. In CIRCLING THE RUNWAY, as Jake prepares to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day with friends, he considers inviting Darlene to join them:
Darlene would not eat meat, and my dining habits and the variety of cooked animals I regularly brought into the office made it difficult for her to be in the same room. Angela’s dinner table would be a meat lover’s dream, but her salads and vegetable side dishes were legendary and meatless. Joey would surely have the very best Chianti on hand. And the Zeppole di San Giuseppe, fist-sized golden pastry prepared traditionally for St. Joseph’s Day, was a cream-filled miracle even Darlene found tough to resist.
Later, the allusion serves to help Diamond describe a reluctant meeting with a killer:
I would be discreetly followed to the rendezvous, I would be well protected from any possible harm, and then the bad guy would be apprehended and brought to justice. A piece of cake. One far less appealing than Zeppole di San Giuseppe.
Food can also serve to add a bit of history to the proceedings. In CHASING CHARLIE CHAN, Jimmy Pigeon and Ray Boyle meet at a landmark restaurant:
“It is generally accepted as a historical fact that the French dip was originally created at Philippe’s in downtown Los Angeles in 1918.
“According to legend, Philippe Mathieu, the French born proprietor, accidentally dropped a sliced French roll into the pan of hot juices while preparing a sandwich.
“The patron, a Los Angeles policeman named French, told Philippe to use the bread as it was. The next day Officer French returned with a group of fellow lawmen, each asking for their bread to be juice-dipped.”
“So,” Jimmy asked, “was the sandwich named after the Frenchman, the bread or the cop?”
“Who cares?” said Ray Boyle.
In COUNTING TO INFINITY, food is also employed to suggest regional cultural differences:
I suppose I expected Chicago-style pizza to be very thick, that a leftover slice could be used for a step exerciser. In fact, the deep-dish concoction looked more like the pan it was baked in. The crust was a thin circle with high sides, creating a large crusty bowl into which the ingredients were poured. First in was the cheese, followed by the Italian sausage, which Eddie claimed was a must, red bell peppers and Portobello mushrooms. Finally, tomato sauce covered the works. We sat at a pizza parlor not far from Eddie’s place and the ballpark. Eddie assured me the pie was as good as any you could find in the city, that it was shipped in dry ice to customers all over the country.
“So, I could have one delivered to me in San Francisco.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind paying sixty bucks.”
"For sixty dollars, the thing had better do my laundry when it gets there.”
In the stand-alone thriller, GRAVESEND, a scene in a diner introduces pivotal characters and sets up dramatic future events:
“Good morning, gents,” says Bill Meyers, bouncing into Mitch’s Coffee Shop and taking a seat at the counter. “Long time, no see, Gabriel.”
“Been very busy, Bill,” says Gabriel Caine, working on a plate of eggs and home fries at the adjacent stool.
“I’ll have the special, Mitch,” says Bill, “scrambled well and with a little less hair.”
“I add the hair for the extra protein,” says Mitch, breaking two eggs onto the griddle.
“Drop a few fingernail clippings into my coffee cup,” says Meyers. “That should take care of my minimum daily requirement. Been working, Gabriel?”
“Yes. And you?”
“I just started a major renovation over on Ovington Place,” says Meyers. “Remodeling the kitchen and bathroom and finishing a basement. Should keep me in groceries for the rest of the month.”
“How well done do you want these eggs, Bill?”
“Burn them. Are you taking a vacation this winter, Mitch?”
“You bet. A week from today. Thirteen days in sunny San Juan,” says Mitch Dunne. “Which reminds me, I’d better get a sign up on the door saying that we’ll be closed.”
“Closed?” says Harry Johannsen, walking into the shop.
“Vacation,” says Mitch, plating the eggs.
“Where am I going to get stale rye toast while you’re gone?” asks Harry, grabbing a seat next to Gabriel.
“I’ll fix you a few orders to go before I leave,” says Mitch, placing the plate on the counter.
“Where’s the hair?” asks Harry, checking Bill’s food.
“Mitch used it all up in my omelet,” says Gabriel.
“Pass the ketchup,” says Bill.
In BROOKLYN JUSTICE, Nick Ventura is treated to homemade delicacies while recuperating in a hospital from a gunshot wound:
Angela popped in at nine, moved the hospital table into place, and set down a plate wrapped in aluminum foil. I uncovered a perfect frittata—eggs, potatoes, garlic, onion, sweet red pepper and grated pecorino Romano. It was a beautiful sight.
“What, no Thomas’ English muffin?”
“I couldn’t resist, I devoured it on my way over.”
“Did you whip this up?”
“All by myself.”
“It’s a work of art.”
“I can have it framed for you.”
“It looks too good to eat.”
“Well, decide, either eat it while it’s still warm or ask it to marry you.”
And later, a touch of Italian culture:
Angela returned at half past six with a large bowl of Ziti Siciliana. The bowl matched the breakfast plate.
“Whip this up also?”
“I could have, but it was a busy day. I pulled it out of the freezer. My mother never lets me go home from a Sunday dinner visit without taking leftovers. Eat while it’s still piping hot from the microwave in the nurses’ break room. I need to make arrangements for your release. I expect to see an empty bowl when I get back.”
“Or else I’ll tell my mother.”
The setting of a story—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Brooklyn—can be as an important character as any other. Similarly, the cultural backgrounds of protagonists and antagonists can add color and authenticity. Food serves well in contributing to a stronger sense of the flavor of a place and the character of a person.