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Culinary Mysteries: Taking a Bite Out of Crime

by Nanci Milone Hill

*Originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of RA News.*

Cesar Chavez said “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…the people who give you their food give you their heart.” With food being such a large part of our lives, it’s no wonder that it has made its way into the fiction we read.

Culinary mysteries first appeared in 1934 when Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe novel. Though Wolfe is a brilliant private detective, food is one of his delights. Recipes appear in the novels, along with precise instructions for preparation. The next mystery series to emphasize food is Virginia Rich's The Cooking School Murders, featuring widow and chef Eugenia Potter. Rich published three novels in the series, which included recipes. These novels were the first to be dubbed “culinary mysteries.” Following Rich’s death, Nancy Pickard completed Rich’s fourth and unfinished manuscript, The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders in 1993; Pickard subsequently published two other novels in the series.

There are literally hundreds of titles for mystery lovers to choose from. What I offer here is a selection of the best. Check out some of these delicious mysteries.

Pies and Prejudice by Ellery Adams
ISBN: 9780425251409

Following the demise of her marriage, Ella Mae returns to her hometown of Havenwood, Georgia, where she opens the Charmed Pie Shoppe. Ella Mae has a gift for baking, and things are going well for her until the fiancé of her childhood enemy is found murdered with Ella Mae's rolling pin.

Glazed Murder by Jessica Beck
ISBN: 9780312946104

Suzanne Hart is the proprietor of a donut shop who loves to solve crimes almost as much as she loves to bake. When friend and customer Patrick Blaine is murdered and left in front of her shop, Suzanne decides to track down the killer. Recipes are included; be prepared to be hungry.

The Grave Gourmet by Alexander Campion
ISBN: 9780758246691

Parisian police detective Capucine LeTellier is tired of working white-collar crime. She gets her chance for greater excitement when a body is discovered in the refrigerator of a three-star restaurant. The death, at first thought to a case of food poisoning, is soon labeled a homicide. The police chief believes that Capucine's restaurant critic husband, Alexandre, will help her get behind the scenes of the restaurant world.

The Chocolate Cat Caper: A Chocoholic Mystery by JoAnna Carl
ISBN: 9780451205568

Leaving Texas after her divorce, Lee McKinney moves to Michigan and takes a job as a bookkeeper for her aunt’s luxury chocolate business. Given the task of delivering thousands of dollars of custom chocolates to a party given by defense attorney Clementine Ripley Lee finds herself in the job of amateur sleuth. It seems someone slipped a little something extra into the chocolates. Something deadly.

A Slice of Murder by Chris Cavender
ISBN: 9780758229489

Meet Eleanor Swift, owner of a North Carolina pizzeria called A Slice of Life. Late one night, while making a delivery, Eleanor finds Richard Olson dead on his kitchen floor with a knife in his chest. Police chief Kevin Hurley is sure that Swift is the murderer. Only her sister thinks she's innocent, so the two turn from pizza making to sleuthing before Eleanor ends up behind bars.

Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs
ISBN: 9780786245352

Theodosia Browning, owner of the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, S.C. finds herself investigating a crime when she caters the annual historic homes garden party, where one of the male guests is poisoned by tea. Desperate to save her reputation -- and her business, she sets out to solve the killing and clear her name. This upbeat, cozy mystery is interspersed with facts about tea as well as recipes for baked goods.

You Cannoli Die Once by Shelley Costa
ISBN: 9781476709352

Italian grandmother Maria Pia Angelotta is arrested for killing her boyfriend with a mortar in the kitchen of her Philadelphia restaurant. The whole family, headed up by Maria’s head chef and granddaughter, investigate the crime to find the real killer and ensure their Nonna’s innocence.

The Whole Enchilada by Diane Mott Davidson
ISBN: 9780062278470

Caterer Goldy Schultz supplies the food for a Mexican-themed birthday party, where her good friend and member of a battered wife’s support group, Holly Ingelby, dies of a drug overdose. With the encouragement of her husband, a police detective, Goldy digs into her friend’s past and discovers secrets that point to murder and put Goldy in a killer’s cross hairs.

Dim Sum Dead by Jerrilyn Farmer
ISBN: 9780380817184

Party planner to the stars Madeline Bean and her business partner Wesley Scott have really outdone themselves this time. The stage is set for a remarkable Chinese New Year party, but things go awry when a guest turns up dead. An antique mah-jongg set figures prominently in the crime, in this witty mystery filled with Hollywood glitz and lots of food lore.

Blueberry Muffin Murder by Joanne Fluke
ISBN: 9780758202307

Hannah Swensen owns The Cookie Jar, an eat-in bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota where the coffee is hot and the gossip flows freely. Everyone is busy preparing for this year’s Winter Carnival, including bestselling cookbook author and cable television star, Connie MacIntyre, who has agreed to make this year’s Winter Cake. When Connie is found dead in the pantry of The Cookie Jar, Hannah and her sister Andrea set out to investigate.

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth by Tamar Myers
ISBN: 9780385471398

Mennonite Magdalena Yoder is a sarcastic, nosy busybody who just happens to run a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania Dutch country with the help of her floozy of a sister and an Amish cook. Her guests include a deer-hunting congressman and his wife, a photographer, and four animal rights activists. When two of her guests are murdered, Magdalena takes matters into her own hands and sets about solving the crime. Amish recipes are included.

Today, there is a plethora of stand-alones and series mystery novels to choose from. Some feature male protagonists; some sleuths are female. Virtually all of them are amateur sleuths. Cooking mysteries tend to align with the cozy mystery genre, having the murders take place off the page, with no violence or gory details. Some contain recipes, some don’t. The main characters work in a variety of occupations, from pastry chef to restaurant critic, from caterers to pizzeria owners. One thing for sure is this -- if you are looking for fun, evenly paced, character-driven stories, you’ll want to sink your teeth into Culinary Mysteries.

Nanci Milone Hill is the Director of the Boxford Town Library in Boxford, Massachusetts. She currently co-edits the Perspectives column for Public Libraries Magazine, serves on the Diversity Council for ALA, and is a member of the Rainbow Project Book List for ALA. Her first book, Reading Women: a Guide for Women's Fiction Book Groups was published by ABC-CLIO in 2011.