Detectives with Refined Taste Buds

DETECTIVES in modern novels don't spend much time on real detection any more. They're too busy racing from one country to another in expensive cars, chasing and being chased. Even though they are breaking all speed limits and crowding other cars off the road, they manage to stop long enough to linger over five-course gourmet meals. Lyons is the obligatory place to stop for a meal. Here's a sample of what the Epicurean sleuth might order: Potage Cr'ecy, Saumon aux Herbes, Canard `a la Menthe, Salade de Pissenlits (dandelions).

We can't categorize all sleuths as Epicureans. As a rule, Sherlock Holmes ate very little. As his friend Watson remarked, ``It was one of his peculiarities that in his more intense moments he would permit himself no food and I have known him presume upon his iron strength until he has fainted from pure inanition.'' On the other hand, we have evidence that many of Holmes's clients were wealthy and often invited him to dine with them. We must assume that Holmes was urbane enough to accept these invitations and appreciated the appetizing viands spread before him.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have a devotee of the stiff upper-lip school, Colonel Peter Blair, whose sleuthing took the form of searching for the 1616 Buffin map of the Arctic, missing from the Cambridge Museum. Referring to the time he spent in the Arctic, Blair writes: ``Unpalatable as it was, the snow at least served to keep up our fluid intake.... Using the machete as a carving knife Ruth cut me a chunk of bear meat which although distinctly tough had all the virtues of fresh food.''

Nero Wolfe, genius at crime-solving, was equally famous as a gourmand. What he liked to do best was compete with the chef in his own kitchen. Here's an excerpt from something he wrote in ``The Mother Hunt,'' 1963. ``Lunch was to be shad roe in Casserole, one of the few dishes on which he and Fritz had a difference of opinion.... We agreed on the larding, the anchovy butter, the chervil, shallot, parsley, bay leaf, pepper, marjoram, and cream, but the argument was the onion....''

Sir John Appleby, retired Chief of Scotland Yard, a creation of Michael Innes (``The Open House''), tends to show up in stately mansions where thefts or murders have recently taken place. Sometimes he has to wait around for the servants to prepare him something to eat, which may turn out to be nothing more than ham and eggs.

And poor Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective in popular novels back in the early 1930s, was often invited to luncheons or dinner parties with place cards, candies, flowers, snowy linen, and old silver, but there was never any mention of food. Sometimes he was seen seated at a breakfast table reading the morning paper but he wasn't even offered a cup of coffee.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, spinster detective and perhaps the least flamboyant of sleuths, professional or amateur, on one occasion ate some ``hot delicious scones.''

Harry Kemelman's David Small, crime solver and rabbi, obeys Orthodox dietary laws pertaining to certain foods and he likes his wife's cooking. No expensive gourmet meals for him, and on an Epicurean scale he would not rate high.

The last time I checked out a Simenon, Inspector Maigret was eating ``tasty shoulder of mutton'' with some friends. Granted it was tasty, but somehow we have come to expect a little more from the French.

V.I. Warshawski, the Chicago female operative, is too busy getting beaten up by street gangs to stop for a meal. Now and then she will eat some yogurt with blueberries, but prefers to scrounge part of the steak her downstairs neighbor is barbecuing in the backyard.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, erudite snob and aesthete, set the fashion for the ``more-Epicurean-than-thou'' sleuths. In his own way, Philo Vance was as scientifically thorough as Sherlock Holmes, but with a difference. Instead of concentrating on material clues, Vance studied the character of his suspects. After eating his fillet of sole Marguery at the Lawyers Club and eggs Benedictine at the Stuyvesant Club, he would casually walk into a room and point out the guilty party. His insights into the psychology of the suspects were infallible - almost Euclidian in their perfection.

There's another detective of several decades ago whose name eludes me. What I do remember is that he was always wandering around from one suspect to another munching on apples. It seemed to be his only characteristic. He doesn't belong to this crowd and I'm embarrassed for him.

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