THERE'S something about reading a good mystery that calls for special food. It's the only time I eat snack food, or let's face it, junk food. But, like most mystery readers, I'm particular about what kind of food I eat with a real Le Carr'e or Dick Francis thriller. Friends tell me they like chocolate chip cookies and milk while pondering the social message behind P.D. James's plot or the ancient rites of Tony Hillerman's Indian detective, Jim Chee. But sweets are not on my list.
When I'm into a good mystery I want something spicy or salty. Chips with cheese or tangy tacos, popcorn with pepper or spicy wasabi chips. Chili peanuts and spicy almonds are good. Although things to eat with one hand are obviously best, the tendency is to eat too many nuts.
Most people say they want chocolate, even chocolate truffles. I relent if I happen to have some of those chocolate pepper cookies from Santa Fe. They're bite-size and chocolaty, but peppery. For beverages, any kind of weak, cold drink is handy for gulping.
I also like to take a break just before the disclosure or the ``grand confrontation'' of all the suspects. This is when I whip up a really good stir-fry or salad with lots of chopped cilantro and celery and crispy things to be slowly enjoyed while pondering the solution before heavy explanations.
Cooking seems to be a good outlet for writers as well as readers of mysteries. Gavin Lyall says in a new book called ``Plots & Pans,'' that cooking is a good plotting activity. His thoughts while cooking jump back and forth between the dialogue he's writing and what recipe he's concocting: ``I can't figure out plots behind a desk but in a kitchen I move about, boiling up a little of this, chopping a little of the other, muttering to myself. If I do the chicken with the almonds I'll need a strong tasting vegetable.''
He continues: ``Suppose the woman was the arms-salesman's daughter not wife, that would make the relationship more interesting. Try if you want to chum but this gun'll shoot through a brick wall - don't tell me there's no paprika.''
Stephen King, considered America's foremost horror writer says, ``Baking bread is one of the ways I relax. I like kneading it, and I love the smell of it, the way it fills the house and makes your mouth water.''
Robert B. Parker writes about both fast and fancy food liked by his private eye, Spenser, who is likely to whip up a scallion omelet or corn cakes with maple syrup, and who keeps fresh basil in his refrigerator and has a Cuisinart. Fancy French menus are easy to find in mystery stories but some are included more naturally than others. Patricia Moyes, who features a detective team, Henry and Emmie Tibbett, describes simple but mouth-watering meals.
In ``Johnny Under Ground'' Moyes tells of a time when Henry Tibbett was extremely hungry. ``From the hot plate, one of his favorite steak and kidney pies smiled up at him, beaming and succulent, flanked by fresh green beans tossed in butter and a mound of pommes mousseline. On the side table an iced Gooseberry Fool stood beside a bowl of whipped cream. Henry decided to postpone the domestic peace talk until after the dinner.''
A winner of three Edgars for her juvenile mysteries, Joan Lowry Nixon tells of a character asking ``hesitant questions over pineapple-ice cream muffins.'' Her recipe can be found at right.