What there doesn’t seem to be much of in mystery fiction, however, is female detectives who begin detecting in middle age (two cases in point: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was 32 when we began to follow her adventures, while Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta was 36). Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.
But it’s a surprise if you’re a woman in your 40s who is beginning to write mystery novels – which not so long ago I was. And while it’s a cliche that people write what they know, when I decided to write a mystery I entered into that cliche wholeheartedly. I started writing mysteries in my 40s – and I made my detectives two women in their 40s.
But while I designed my detectives in part to mirror myself, I also chose their age for entirely different reasons. For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.
This decision is a small one, but for me it engaged with a question I’ve long struggled with, the question of what, intellectually, literature is supposed to do. Should it report on the world as it is, or should it model the world as it might – could, should, would – be?
Recent fiction may not have been filled with middle-aged women, but it has been filled with angry ones. It’s jam packed with dystopian models of female repression and with women and men implacably set against one other: look at Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. As I began to create my fictional world, I was troubled by the question of whether these outpourings of rage, all justified, all earned, are enough.
In one way this literature is unquestionably good: female rage is something else culture has assiduously avoided considering for centuries, and during those centuries women have been subjugated, silenced, used and abused in ways that deserve outpourings of anger.
Nor is this landscape of female repression changing quickly, and there is value in forcing it before readers’ eyes. In a recent article for The Guardian about the Staunch Prize, the new award for the best crime/mystery novel that does not feature violence against women, the novelist Kaite Welsh wrote that she wouldn’t “sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia … my work lies in marrying my imagination with the ugly truth”. This is an important argument.
Modeling the future
But while I don’t care about the absence of feminist utopias, I do care about the absence of writing that models the future we want. What will it be like, the world we’re striving for where the playing field is level and men and women are just people being people together? I believe that we can only imagine based on what we’ve seen, and that it’s part of literature’s job to help us see what doesn’t yet exist but could.
For this reason, although I grounded my novels firmly in the present (well, Death in Paris is set in 2014 and The Books of the Dead in 2016), I made some specific choices about that present. In my books, every person in a powerful position is a woman. Department heads and doctors, sources of knowledge and implacable foes: all are female.
More importantly, as far as I was concerned, no one draws attention to that. It’s so normal as to be unworthy of note. Nor does anyone comment on the fact that both my detectives are childless, and one remains happily unmarried in her mid-40s. Both of these detectives are heterosexual, but I made that decision so I could give each a husband or boyfriend who sees them as an intellectual and emotional equal, and for whom that equality is also the norm. The women in my books have and enjoy good sex, and they have and enjoy good conversations – almost none of them about men.
My books are full of oversights and omissions, and I’m far from satisfied with them. But what I aimed to do, and am still trying to do, is to augment the justifiable depictions of anger, the honest depictions of ongoing brutality and violence against women, with a small model that allows for a morsel of hope.
In Dervla McTiernan’s book, The Scholar, published earlier this year, women are consistently used as the “fall guys” for men with high aspirations. Two young women are killed when they uncover fraud. Another female colleague is then framed for the murders.
Before writing crime fiction, McTiernan worked as a lawyer for 12 years, for international companies like the one in The Scholar. Her background lends her book authority, even though it’s fiction.
McTiernan joins a batch of crime writing women bringing professional clout to their books. Others are Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Marcia Clark, Alafair Burke, Anne Holt, and Lisa Scottoline. This list is a tiny fraction of the trailblazing authors.
Crimes close to home
Last week, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that “crime fiction is the morality drama of our time” that can “heighten and dissect the battle of good against evil enacted daily in our living rooms, cities and streets”. She compared crime books about violence against women with Australia’s deplorable record on domestic violence and rape.
In books written by ex-justice professionals, we are asked to examine our cultural and moral compasses. These authors don’t just write about serial killers – who are thankfully more common in the pages of crime books than in real life – they more often focus on murders by spouses, family members or colleagues of the victim. Some push for changes to how rape trials are prosecuted. They focus on the justice system problems that women face, as victims and as professionals.
The stories also ask us to question how we perceive professional women. These authors’ characters, who often have much in common with their creators, face a barrage of harassment on the job. Lisa Scottoline’s fictional all-women law firm is consistently targeted by abusive prank callers. In her latest book, Feared, the firm is sued for “reverse” sexual discrimination.
What’s the appeal?
Australians are avid readers of crime fiction. In a 2017 study, 48.5% of respondents read crime fiction, making it the most popular genre for enjoyment.
While researching my book on the topic, I had the opportunity to read Dorothy Uhnak’s fan letters, held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Readers (many of whom were prison inmates) repeatedly told Uhnak that her books touched on inequalities in the justice system that rang true for them, and reading her work was therapeutic.
Cosy vs hardboiled
Female crime writers have historically been pigeonholed as writing “cosy crime” novels as opposed to more graphic masculine representations of “hardboiled” detectives.
We are used to reading about women as amateurs, from Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, to Janet Evanovich’s bumbling and untrained bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. Since the 1970s, more authors have written about women as hardboiled private detectives.
Now, we are increasingly seeing women characters in professional roles. When the author is also a professional, she has even more authority. She has “insider knowledge.” Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones surveyed women who read feminist crime series and found that readers identify with the struggles of characters who are realistic professional women. Often, the fictional investigations have similarities to real ones the author has worked on. Central Park 5 prosecutor turned crime author Linda Fairstein received pointed criticism about these similarities.
In Australia, ex-police officer Y.A. Erskine’s debut The Brotherhood tells the story of rookie cop Lucy Howard who is blamed when a senior sergeant is killed on a routine call-out. She can’t join the brotherhood of the Tasmanian police force, because, in her words, she doesn’t have the “standard-issue penis”. She is an outsider inside the system.
In Erskine’s follow-up, The Betrayal, Lucy is raped by a colleague. When she makes a complaint, she is vilified and blamed for tarnishing the reputation of the police. The complaint is briefly investigated before being dropped.
Another Australian ex-cop writing crime is P.M. Newton. Her debut, The Old School (notice the theme in the titles?), follows Australian-Vietnamese officer, Nhu “Ned” Kelly. She deals with the racism and corruption of her male colleagues before being shot by one of them.
Newton’s following book, Beams Falling (a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s Flitcraft parable within The Maltese Falcon), tracks Ned’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder. While fictional detectives usually bounce back quickly after violence, Ned never fully gets over the trauma, and her work offers little support.
Ex-cop Karen M. Davis, has also created a character damaged by her policing experience. Davis’ Lexie Rogers has been stabbed in the neck, and fears facing her attacker in court – a fear exacerbated by her insider knowledge of the justice system. Davis has spoken about how she retired from the police because of trauma, and began writing as a kind of catharsis. Erskine has spoken out about how the rape of Lucy in her books is based on her own unreported rape by a colleague.
These authors have seen the inside of the criminal justice system, its flaws and the experience of women within it. They bring this cachet of lived experiences to their crime fiction. Bestsellers by Marcia Clark or Anne Holt could spark moral reflection, validate women’s experiences, and be part of the cultural shift needed to end violence against women.
American Animals, a film recounting the true story of a 2004 rare book theft, was recently released in cinemas across the UK. The film is a dramatic retelling of events based on director Bart Layton’s interviews and written correspondence with the convicted book thieves – interactions which began while the thieves were serving seven-year prison sentences following their guilty pleas.
After a year in the planning, the heist involved the men disguising themselves as elderly, shooting librarian Betty Jean Gooch with a stun gun and simply shoving valuables into backpacks. When the day came, the men managed to escape with approximately US$750,000 worth of books in their backpacks, including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, an illuminated medieval manuscript, and a copy of John James Audubon’s A Synopsis of Birds of North America.
Rushing from Lexington to New York, the men attempted to appraise their loot at Christie’s, but never managed to sell their ill-gotten gains. They returned home with the books and were tracked down by the FBI within a matter of months. The entire ordeal was so poorly organised that Vanity Fair deemed it “one part Oceans 11, one part Harold & Kumar”.
But this was by no means the only notable rare book heist in living memory. Earlier in 2018, an audit of the special collections of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh uncovered a series of thefts of rare books and book pages with a total value of around US$8m over a period of more than 20 years. It turned out that the former manager of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room, Gregory Priore, and bookseller John Schulman had been working together to sell the stolen goods through the rare book trade and auction houses.
The books stolen from Carnegie included Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a first edition of The Journal of Major George Washington, and a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Unaware of where these books came from, booksellers from across the globe bought and sold them on to their own private and institutional customers.
These sales can be difficult to track on such a large scale and, while some works have been recovered (often at the booksellers’ own expense), hundreds of the stolen items remain missing. An up-to-date list of those items believed to have been stolen is provided by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.
Library thefts are nothing new. Throughout the 1840s, Italian count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja stole approximately 30,000 items in his job as chief inspector of French Libraries (he later made a comfortable living selling this loot in England).
More recently, in 1990, American bibiomaniac Stephen Blumberg was arrested for stealing more than 20,000 books valued at more than US$5m from more than 200 universities and museums across North America.
He served four years in prison and became known as the “Book Bandit”.
But on a more systemic and institutional level one could go as far back as the ancient Library of Alexandria, which supposedly seized any books found on ships arriving at the port. These books were copied by professional scribes who then deposited the original works into the library and gave the copies to the books’ owners.
While library thefts are commonplace, the release of American Animals and the news of the recent Carnegie Library thefts have made this crime front page news. After all, the sheer value of some of these books makes them a very attractive proposition for thieves. But it’s not always just about money – the young men in American Animals fantasise about getting their hands on culturally revered items, while Guglielmo Libri and Blumberg were bibliomaniacs with a recognised condition. And the Library of Alexandria had a larcenous ambition to become a “universal library”, gathering all of the known world’s knowledge under a single roof.
The rare book trade is lucrative, certainly. Individuals and institutions are willing to spend healthy amounts to enhance their collections. But books represent more than just profit. They are cultural artefacts that span space and time to carry the voices of those who have meaningfully contributed to the world’s knowledge. As the primary means of communication for thousands of years, books reflect and perpetuate cultural heritage and – ultimately – help us understand what it means to be human.
Whether someone is stealing books for financial gain, the thrill of the game, or the overwhelming love of these objects, library theft is always underpinned by an understanding of books as valuable cultural artefacts. The young men in the American Animals heists are animals because they tried to plunder these relics of human development.
In English, we might claim we could “murder a good steak”. Italian and Spanish speakers might “kill for a coffee”, and Germans refer to acute hunger as Mordshunger or murderhunger – but do people really kill for food?
Cannibalism is by no means the only way in which crime and food are linked.
Disputes over food may lead to murder. In the Bible, when Abel’s sacrifice of meat is preferred to Cain’s second-rate offering of produce, jealousy results in a deadly attack.
Food may also be a deadly weapon, killing through poison, or as in Roald Dahl’s fiendish short story Lamb to the Slaughter, serving as a blunt instrument.
Indeed, research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between real-life and fictional sensory triggers. Food memories can really bring a story alive.
Rather than serving to highlight a limited range of functions (as a weapon, as an element of characterisation or setting), food has immense potential in crime fiction. Our book addresses a broad range of questions, including what role recipes play in these narratives, whether crimes can be committed against food and how eating rituals relate to cultural belonging, sex, gender or class.
In chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s fictional and factual writings, eating and the preparation and experience of food are always situated on the edge. The professional kitchen is not primarily a place where delicious food is produced but is instead a site of violence.
This kitchen-as-crime-scene contradicts its expected role as the cultural and emotional centre of the domestic and social sphere.
Food is a pervasive element of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano franchise. Eating rituals may increase dramatic suspense, but they also mark place and cultural identity and contribute to the psychological characterisation of the detective hero.
Food plays a crucial role in outlining Montalbano’s distinctive personality, just as it does for other famous detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret, for whom eating is an essential part of any investigation. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine cuisine. Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho is both an experienced cook and a famous glutton.
In recent years, culinary mysteries have become very popular in Germany, marketed to both fans of detective fiction and food aficionados. Ella Danz’s Georg Angermüller mystery series features a police inspector who likes to cook and eat. In her novel Geschmacksverwirrung (Taste Confusion), a food critic dies after being force-fed goose liver pâté in the same way geese and ducks are force-fed to produce foie gras.
While investigating the crime, the detective confronts issues like factory farming and ethical food production. Solving crimes requires skills that can equally be used to discover hidden truths about food. Truffled goose liver pâté may contain large amounts of pork fat and only a tiny amount of truffle. Factory animals never get to see the green grass and blue sky on the packaging.
Danz provides an appendix with recipes, a practice that has proven popular with readers. Adding recipes to culinary mysteries also allows bookstores to display the books in both the cook book and and mystery sections, thus doubling exposure.
Feminist food rituals
Feminist crime fiction sheds a different light on food. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Dominique Sylvain all portray eating as an expression of female independence and agency in opposition to gender norms, challenging the cultural ideal of thinness.
The eating habits of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone not only signal that women are allowed to enjoy heavy food (McDonald’s), but they are just as much a commentary on the obsession with health and healthy food in American culture. In the French context, both Sylvain’s and Fred Vargas’s female detectives show strong appreciation for good food, prepared well.
Another, somewhat opposing idea in the novels is an indifferent or oblivious attitude to eating. The female detective who stares into her empty fridge is a recurrent scene in all the series, representing another blow to the traditional association of femininity and domesticity. Replacing marriage and family with friends is a typical feature of feminist crime fiction that rejects traditional gender roles, highlighting the female detective’s independence.
Bars and restaurants play a crucial role in this. The importance attached to the local eating place that functions as a headquarters inhabited by friends, as opposed to family, reflects the detective’s liberation from the domestic sphere and traditional femininity.
The female protagonist and first-person narrator of Ruth Rendell’s novella Heartstones is 16-year-old Elvira, whose mother has died from cancer. Through her retrospective narrative, the novella follows Elvira’s descent into anorexia, her obsession with her emotionally distant father Luke and her relationship with her younger sister Spinney, who overeats.
The clues Elvira later discovers suggest Spinney murdered Luke and his new fiancée, and may murder her, too. The narrative focuses on the denial of food and the compulsion either to eat or to avoid eating. Food is the enemy, a form of poison, and eating is the crime. Rendell uses the domestic noir genre, which highlights intimate experiences from the personal and domestic sphere to create a feminist critique of eating disorders and the patriarchal family as a “crime scene”.
Food and identity
Like Saga Noren (Bron/Broen) and Sarah Lund (The Killing), Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is lacking in emotional intelligence, which prevents her from establishing a personal relationship to the social code of food. The emphasis on the very narrow range of food she consumes stands in clear contrast to the other characters in the stories. She lives on frozen instant meals, mostly pizza, heated in the microwave or the oven, bread, apples, and of course coffee, which she usually consumes alone.
Eating frozen pizza not only blurs the boundaries between child and grown-up, but also introduces a male characteristic — refusing to take on the female role in the kitchen — that fits perfectly in the masculine area of the nerd and the hacker.
The relationship between food and identity, and the use of food as a symbol of the diversity of identities, place Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s work in line with recent trends of international crime fiction. He uses traditional food and drink to expand and challenge the definition of Cubanness. Cooking is a way to preserve the richness and variety of local and traditional culture.
Many traditional Cuban dishes, such as the stew ajiaco, are under threat because of the scarcity of ingredients. Padura suggests here that the richness of Cuban culture is a victim of the revolutionary government’s attempt to create a coherent national narrative and a standardised identity model.
National dishes represent identity in other contexts, too. Cultural differences appear in Georges Simenon’s work through references to food. Where, when, what and with whom people eat are all potentially useful clues for Maigret. They can serve first, when among people of the same nationality, to underline difference and make clear the boundaries between people. Second, when foreigners are involved, they can confirm similarity, suggesting unity and togetherness.
In the case of the English-born Australian writer Arthur Upfield, food offers insights into complex race relations and colonial influences on the traditional owners of the land. One example is seen in Upfield’s most famous protagonist, Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), and the detective’s ability to identify, through observation alone, an Aboriginal Australian who has been living on a white man’s menu rather than a traditional indigenous diet.
Ranging from “meals” to “grub”, food is critical to establishing, maintaining and handing on cultural practices and social identity. The suspects in Bony’s investigations — male, female, single, married, working class, upper class — are separated by what, and how much, they eat and drink as easily as they are by gender, living situation and occupation.
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The representation of food in international crime fiction, running the gamut from giggles to gore, is clearly a rich field for exploration.