Friday, February 21, 2014

When a "Foodie" Writes a Mystery Novel

What happens when a self-confessed “foodie” writes a mystery novel? Are there cupcakes among the corpses and croissants with the clues?

Food mysteries are plentiful, but what if the story has nothing to do with food and the main character is not a cook or a caterer but a geeky computer type? What if the novel is not a "cozy" but an edgy tale with a morally compromised heroine (who likes to cook)? How hard is it to work food, often home-cooked into the story?

In Festival Madness, my mystery novel that marries bleeding edge technology and the Burning Man Festival, food anchors the plot in the real world. In The Da Vinci Code, I don’t recall that anyone ate or used the toilet for 36 hours but in reality, most of us would be in dire straits. There are occasions called breakfast, lunch and dinner. We usually eat two or three times a day and even have a bit of a nosh between meals. Food preferences can reveal character, can even bring the settings of the book to life.

The main character who narrates the story is Emma, and throughout the book, she tries to help her friend and colleague Wayne, who is going through a rough time. She asks him if there’s anything she can do.
“Maybe loaf of your onion bread. And that tomato soup.” 
Aha! Comfort food.

Early in the novel Emma eats at three restaurants. The first is the upscale Harvest in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. She’s with her husband sees an old lover, and her appetite flees. The second restaurant is Chuck E. Cheese’s. I chose that as a locale for a top-secret meeting. It had an interesting ambiance with noisy games, noisy kids and generic pizza, and the FBI following one of the group.  Later Emma meets an MIT professor at the Cambridge Kendall Square Legal Seafood, where high tech honchos eat brain food. She’s “fishing” for some information which she doesn’t get.

Once the scene shifts from the technical world where the characters dwell to the world of The Burning Man Festival where they’ll live in the desert for several days, everything changes. Against her will, Emma is drafted to cook for a camp of geeks. She must prepare vegan, vegetarian and carnivore meals for a crowd. Watching her in action we see that she is hews to the saying, “remain calm and carry on”. Not easy when you’re being stalked by an ape man and falling for a sexy French pilot. In the heat of the desert Emma concocts Salade Niçoise and a Mexican Fiesta. And the liquor flows, too. Isn’t it fun to live vicariously?

Back in Boston, Emma is busy trying to put together a theory of how the murders occurred. One of the tasks involves breaking into a murdered man’s computer.
“Later in our office, Wayne hemmed and hawed and finally said, “I’m going to try to break into Think Tank’s laptop tonight. Any chance of you coming over? Like, for moral support. Like, for dinner? Maybe to amp up the energy level with some carbs?”
Pretending to stare into a crystal ball, I pointed and said, “I see a steaming bowl of fettuccine napped with a creamy sauce of Parmesan cheese and pancetta. I see peas for color, and a sage leaf garnish.”
“That would be, like, heaven. Er, could you make pasta for several? We’ll have helpers.”
“I insist on a salad.”
“We like salad. Just no funny stuff. Good old iceberg lettuce for me. I hate radicchio. And arugula. No goddam olives. Tomatoes and cukes optional. No onions. Ranch dressing. All right?”

We all know picky eaters. Every novel needs one. 
And nothing beats a face-to-face meeting when things get tense.
“Can we meet someplace and talk about this? I’m uneasy about phone conversations, especially your cell. We don’t want these conversations hacked.”
“Why don’t I drive over to your place? Should I pick up a pizza?”
“Not unless you don’t like chicken parm.”
“Woot! Chicken parm is awesome. Be there in half an hour.”
I got busy on dinner. My nerves were in overdrive as I spun the lettuce dry. Noticing artichokes on the counter, I had to remind myself to keep the salad “plain vanilla.” I put the water on for the pasta, and opened a jar of my favorite sauce. By the time I heard Wayne’s old Volvo coming up the driveway, I had a succulent pile of nicely browned pieces of chicken.
Wayne came into the kitchen and handed me a bouquet of great big sunflowers.

Doesn’t this show us something about these characters?  

And for a hurry-up unplanned flight to the Adirondacks:

“Food?” Asked Kenda, eyeing the ready-to-go duffle bags sitting in the entry hall.
We ransacked the fridge and I stuffed a wheeled cooler with roast beef sandwiches, extra bread, cheese, crackers, fruit, yogurt smoothies and some cookies. Kenda added water and Cokes. I tossed in a six-pack of beer, filled a flask with rum and put the laptop with the luggage.
“Everything but condoms,” she said, grinning.
We laughed like maniacs.

What’s in YOUR refrigerator? I hope these little vignette and excerpts help you see how food reveals character and can be a part of advancing a plot. Don’ send your characters off into the world without nourishment and even a few bathroom breaks. Your fiction will be more realistic for the calories. And characters can gorge without getting gaining an ounce. Ah, make believe! 
How far would you go for a friend?  Wreck your marriage?  Endanger your job? Risk your very life?

Boston-based computer security consultant Emma Lee Devens leaves her top-secret project in disarray and jeopardizes her marriage when she rushes to find her missing friend and colleague. Emma’s search takes her to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada and the Burning Man Festival where a unique experience of survival, ceremonial fire, danger and transcendence awaits. Anything can happen at Burning Man. Even murder.

Festival Madness can be purchased at, either for your e-reader or in trade paperback format.   


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