Here’s a full transcript of the eighth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: It’s a perfect image of family harmony and domestic bliss. Everyone gathered around a table groaning with food, brought together for the daily ritual of breaking bread. Maybe it’s a huge dining room full of damask and silver; perhaps it’s a small, homely kitchen with everyone crowded in on stools. The class signifiers matter less than the fact that the whole family is there, eating together.
Except too often, in a detective novel that is, these jolly family dinners aren’t quite what they seem. There’s resentment about inheritance simmering below the surface, and extramarital affairs being conducted under spouses’ noses. Long held grudges from childhood hover in the background, all the more dangerous now that everybody is all grown up. Still, as long as everyone can stay civil and eat together, they can pretend that everything is just fine.
That is, until somebody clutches their throat, turns blue in the face, and falls face forward into their soup
Because tonight, you see, we’re dining with death.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
A brief note before we go any further: in order to be able to discuss this subject properly, I might need to hint at whodunnit. If you’re worried about spoilers, please refer now to the list of books in the episode description, and maybe come back when you’ve finished reading them.
Food matters in literature. Describing what characters eat and how is an important tool for authors trying to build a world and an atmosphere quickly and without a lot of exposition. You can learn a lot about someone from what they choose to eat and what they leave on the plate, and how they behave during the meal.
Food also has a deeper symbolic meaning: it stands for comfort, security, domesticity and family. There’s a reason why, both in real life and in fiction, when something terrible happens our first reaction is to make tea or heat up soup. It’s a way of showing love and of taking care of someone.
Food can also do a lot of the work in a story when it comes to setting the scene and evoking the period.
Kate: I have always been interested in the food in Agatha Christie because it was sort of a a quite interesting picture of England. So At Bertram’s Hotel is full of people sitting in an old fashioned hotel dining room eating muffins and doughnuts and crumpets and having big pots of tea and A Pocket Full of Rye is about a jar of marmalade and about tea time at work and about scones and jam and there is this sort of picture of England that you get through the food which I always really appreciated and felt sort of placed me in the stories in a really definite way.
Caroline: This is the food writer Kate Young, the author of The Little Library Cookbook. She grew up in Australia, and she writes about food herself, so she’s always been sensitive to the ways in which it is used in fiction generally, and — as a massive Agatha Christie fan — in these novels in particular.
In both of the books she mentioned there food plays a vital role not only in expressing their essential Englishness, but also in delineating period, setting and character. So in At Bertram’s Hotel, Miss Marple is continually troubled by how perfectly expressive the food at the hotel where she is staying is of her Edwardian girlhood, all seed cake and perfect muffins — a type of fare that had mostly vanished by the time the book was published in 1965. It’s all just too good to be true, she feels, as if the afternoon tea service is a performance on a stage rather than a real part of life. And of course, it turns out that she is right. The food at the hotel is explicitly designed to give the place a nostalgic atmosphere of the utmost respectability in order to detract from the shady things that are going on.
Similarly, in the opening chapter of A Pocket Full of Rye from 1953, we follow a long description of how the morning tea break takes place at an office, learning all the while who is competent and who is not. (The ability to make tea with water that is actually boiling is rarer than you might think.) The perfect tray is eventually presented to the boss, only for him to collapse and die shortly after taking a sip of his tea. In crime novels, food isn’t just a way of setting a scene or evoking a place. Food can also be a means of murder.
In detective fiction, food has a dual, and even contradictory, role. It has all of that sense of home and tranquility, but then when that is disrupted by violence, the juxtaposition is all the more jarring. So many detective stories start with a peaceful exchange over the breakfast table — lots of Sherlock Holmes stories begin this way, as does Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, and many other of her works. Then, the bad news arrives and the meal is spoilt. The food is left to go cold because crime has intervened. Normality is disrupted. It’s even a way of showing that someone is depraved or lacking in humanity — in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey says that he’s known murders tuck into the supper of someone they’ve just murdered quite cheerfully in order to suggest that the death occurred later.
Of course, the most prominent role food plays in crime fiction is as a vehicle for poison. This is the most extreme way that comforting, nourishing food is subverted for evil ends, when the meal itself becomes the way in which the fatal blow is delivered. Here’s Kate Young again:
Kate: A Pocket Full of Rye is a really good example of that. There’s these extraordinary breakfast that is described and then a really lovely afternoon tea both of which are how the two characters who enjoy those meals that the breakfast meal and then the afternoon tea. That’s how they’re murdered. There’s poison slipped into tea and poison put it into a pot — taxine from the yew berries in the trees outside that is put into the pot of marmalade. So it is a really grim and eerie look at food which is supposed to be this warming wholesome comforting thing I think particularly like lovely breakfasts at home and and an afternoon tea service in your library are supposed to be the sort of things that you could just eat and enjoy that happen every day and suddenly are the result of somebody getting murdered. It is a really interesting thing and the descriptions of those meals because they keep returning to them and considering how that poison could possibly have been administered it is really interesting to keep returning to that table and how it was set.
Caroline: Agatha Christie in particular liked using this means of murder in her books; just under half of her plots involve a poisoning of one kind or another. Partly this is because the use of poison can just make for a more interesting plot, and it also fits into the mostly bloodless kind of violence preferred by the crime fiction of the 1920s and 30s. (Incidentally, most descriptions of poison victims’ deaths in novels skate over some of the more unpleasant symptoms, like excessive vomiting and diarrhoea. Euphemisms like “violently unwell” appear instead. If you’re interested in getting all the gory details about what really happens when you swallow a lethal dose of something, I recommend reading scientist Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic.)
Poison is a frighteningly easy way of killing someone, too. It’s quiet, it doesn’t require excessive physical strength, and in some cases the deed can even be done at second hand, so the murderer doesn’t even have to be present administer the dose themselves. There are countless examples of this, and I’ve always found them some of the most terrifying deaths in detective fiction. There’s Aunt Julia in Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral, who dies because one of her weight loss pills has been poisoned and then put back in the packet, and the murderer is just waiting for the morning when she happens to swallow that one.
Or Rex Fortescue in A Pocket Full of Rye as Kate said, dead because of poison his housemaid put in his marmalade because her boyfriend told her it was a truth serum. Or Anne Johnson in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, who wakes up thirsty in the night and downs the glass of water by her bed, except the murder has replaced it with hydrochloric acid and she dies in burning agony. This last one scared me for months after I read it as a child — a glass of water is such an innocuous thing, and yet here it was turned into a deadly weapon.
And then there’s the classic “sending a box of poisoned chocolates” way of trying to kill someone, which I’ve always thought was deeply creepy, especially when, as in Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors, the poison has only been injected into the chocolates that the intended victim particularly likes. That such an intimate thing to do, to exploit someone’s taste in sweets like that. It brings murderer and victim as close as if he was holding a pillow over her face.
Another reason why Christie used poison so often in her plots is because she had professional knowledge to draw on. During the First World War, she volunteered as a nurse in a hospital in Devon and ended up working in the dispensary there. She took and passed exams in 1917 that qualified her to work as a dispenser, meaning that she had a wide knowledge of different drugs, their therapeutic uses in medicine, the safety procedures required at the time, and what the consequences of misuse might be. She gave this exact job to a character in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Cynthia Murdoch is a dispenser in a hospital, and her knowledge of and proximity to dangerous compounds like arsenic and strychnine is vital to that book’s plot.
Christie remained interested in pharmacy long after the war was over, collecting books on the subject and keeping up with the latest research. During the Second World War she again volunteered as a dispenser, updating her training with further study and working at least two days a week at University College Hospital in London. This is why Miss Marple is so extremely knowledgeable about poisons and their antidotes — sometimes to a degree that slightly stretches credulity, such as in the short story “The Thumb Mark of St Peter”, when she immediately knows that a dying, poisoned man is trying to call for the compound “pilocarpine” to counteract the fatal dose of atropine eye drops he has just ingested.
Christie even corresponded with specialists throughout her writing career to make sure she got the details of her fictional poisonings absolutely right. Largely, she did, unlike some other, less well versed detective novelists. The Pharmaceutical Journal reviewed The Mysterious Affair at Styles and said that “This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written,” which was an accolade Christie remained proud of her whole life.
When poison has been used, the food that carried it is subject to much greater scrutiny than it would otherwise be in a novel. It ceases to be part of the background, and comes sharply into focus. Again, it’s a macabre parody of the virtuous attention to detail a good cook would pay to the creation of a meal. Analysts pore over small samples of crucial dinners and detectives quiz the diners about the precise details of who ate what and when. Domestic poisonings were horribly common in Britain in the 19th and early 20th century, mostly due to a lack of proper regulation and the ready availability of large quantities of extremely toxic substances in things like fly papers and patent medicines. The newspapers covered these cases constantly, so the techniques available to the police for working out what had been introduced into food and why came to be well known. This, of course, meant that any would-be poisoner, even in fiction, had to get creative if they were going to get away with it.
For me, the most infamous meal in detective fiction is served in the Dorothy L Sayers novel Strong Poison, first published in 1930. This book actually opens not with a disrupted breakfast, but with a courtroom drama. A young detective novelist by the name of Harriet Vane in the dock, being tried for the murder by poison of her lover Philip Boyes. She absolutely denies the charge, and Lord Peter Wimsey, watching from the public gallery, believes her, although the judge and most of the jury seem convinced of her guilt. Fortunately for both the reader and this nascent sleuthing romance, the trial falls apart when the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, giving Wimsey time to investigate properly.
The tale he discovers all turns on this one dinner, the last meal that Boyes ate before he succumbed to the effects of arsenic poisoning and died. It was served at his cousin Norman Urquhart’s house, and the description of all the courses — a cup of cold bouillon to start, then a piece of turbot with sauce, followed by a poulet en casserole, and finally a sweet omelette, actually made at the table by the murder victim himself using a spirit lamp and a chafing dish — is detailed and elaborate. Reading it, you can feel your mouth watering, until you remember that some part of this dinner actually killed someone. Both Boyes and his cousin ate some of everything, and all the dishes bar the omelette were also eaten by the servants. When Boyes is taken ill later that evening, Urquhart even takes the precaution of preserving as much of the meal as possible for testing, despite the fact that to start with there is no suggestion of poisoning. As Wimsey puts it towards the end of the book, “Did you ever hear of a meal hedged round with such precautions? It’s not natural.” The extreme focus and preparation around this one meal is suspicious, and that’s what ultimately leads to the detective discovering the solution.
There’s a similarly elaborate plot around the death in the Agatha Christie short story “The Tuesday Night Club”, when a husband who happens to be a salesman for a chemical firm engineers that the maid will use hundreds and thousands laced with arsenic to decorate a trifle. It appears on the surface that husband, wife and the wife’s companion have all eaten the same meal and yet only the wife died, but Miss Marple soon works out that Mr Jones just scraped off the hundreds and thousands, and the companion Miss Clark was “banting” (that is, dieting) so wouldn’t have touched her helping of dessert. To me, this is such a grim murder — trifle is such a cheering pudding, and hundreds and thousands are a kind of sugar decoration you’ll often see on sweets for children. Turning them into a way of killing an unwanted wife is doubly horrible.
It’s perhaps interesting that in both of these examples that I’ve singled out to talk about, the poisoners who adulterate otherwise delicious-sounding food are both men. Poison is traditionally considered to be a “woman’s weapon”, both because it doesn’t require great strength to wield, and because it works best in the customary women’s sphere of the home. Even if real-life statistical analysis of poisoning cases doesn’t actually back up this stereotype, it’s definitely a persistent idea in detective fiction that if someone is poisoned, you should look for a murderess, not a murderer. That’s why Harriet Vane so very nearly gets convicted, and why Elinor Carlisle in Christie’s Sad Cypress very nearly does too, and why Mitzi, the cook in A Murder is Announced, is convinced that she will end up in prison too. The links between nourishing food and femininity are so strong that when the former is subverted for evil purposes, it follows that the latter has been corrupted too. The central pillar of society — the home — has collapsed, and all is in disarray. “Dining is the privilege of civilisation” wrote Mrs Beeton – until, one day, it’s not anymore.
Yet despite all of ghastly poisonings in detective novels, we still love reading about the food. Or perhaps it’s because of this that there’s such interest in these dishes – there’s a certain piquancy to making a recipe that could so easily have an extra, deadly ingredient. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of books that exist to cater to our desire to replicate the food we read about in whodunnits, from Anne Martinetti’s Agatha Christie cookbook Crèmes & châtiments : Recettes délicieuses et criminelles to The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.
In Kate Young’s The Little Library Cookbook, there are two recipes she’s created that are inspired by descriptions in Agatha Christie stories.
Kate: The first one is creamed haddock on toast, which because I love Sleeping Murder which is the book that it’s from. And because I also love like a late night fish supper and the creamed haddock on toast is something that Gwenda asked for for breakfast and the woman who works in her house her sort of housekeeper says ‘um, no you’re not eating fish in bed, you can have that for supper instead’. And I like the idea of sort of a late night fish supper. So I went with creamed haddock on toast which is totally delicious not very photogenic. There’s clearly not a picture of it in my book and there’s a reason for that. And then the crystallized ginger is one of my granddad’s favorite things. It’s from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a Hercule Poirot book where he goes to a big house in the countryside and there’s a ruby and a Christmas pudding and it’s it’s very like classic Christie feel in terms of the house but it’s even more so because it’s an English house at Christmas time.
Caroline: When she’s developing a recipe from a novel – and her book is full of them, it’s not just detective stories — she’s trying to recreate the feeling you get while you read about the food, as much as literally translate what’s on the page.
Kate: I’m not a food historian so while I really enjoy the research and looking into the sort of history surrounding a recipe the biggest thing for me is that it has to work in your kitchen. So what I do at the beginning is really consider the time the book was set and who’s doing the cooking in that house whether it’s somebody who’s employed to cook or whether it’s a member of the family. And then what cookbooks they might have had. And so there’s lots of great historic cookbooks that are available that you can have a look at and lots of them are available online. I play around with different ingredients and different methods and have a think about social class and what access to ingredients and access to equipment that character might have had and then all of that kind of gets thrown away when I come to write the recipe because it needs to work in 2018-2019. So I know this is a non Christie example that I’m going to talk about but the roasted goose in A Christmas Carol that Mrs Cratchit makes for their family on Christmas Day is roasted over a spit and if I put a recipe for roasted goose in the book where that said ‘Ok ready your spit’ nobody’s ever going to make it. And so it needs to be something that’s going to work in your kitchen now that has an essence or an understanding or a bit that is from that book without being sort of really adherent to the cooking methods and ingredients at the time.
Caroline: For the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth in 2010, the actress Jane Asher created a recipe for the “Delicious Death” chocolate birthday cake that Mitzi makes in A Murder is Announced. It’s described as a cake with “an intense, forbidding dark Belgian chocolate centre which is lifted by the unexpected sharp zing of its brandy-soaked cherry and ginger filling”. In the book, someone is found dead after eating this rich centrepiece of the birthday tea, but in real life people queued up at the Agatha Christie festival in Devon that year to grab a piece.
Perhaps risking death is worth it, if the cake is especially delicious.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/dining with death. There, you can also read a full transcript.
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Next time on Shedunnit: The Rules