Lethal Vintage Book Cover

Food/Crime Fiction

Lethal Vintage Book Cover
A Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery

Food is married to crime through the poisoner. Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici reportedly poisoned his brother with a peach he’d just sliced in two, the other half of which the Cardinal had just eaten himself to no ill effect. (Think about it: two sides to every blade.) But food is married to crime fiction for a more complicated set of reasons altogether.

In the old days – that is, the pre-foodie era prior to the late twentieth century – plenty of fictional poisoning went on. Agatha Christie is littered with corpses whose last breaths smelled oddly sweet, or bitter, or of almonds. But what to make of the gourmand sleuth? There were so many. Hercule Poirot grew his own vegetable marrow and was fussy about sirop de cassis.Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret ate endlessly of such fare as bouillabaisse, blanquette, and tete de veau. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Wimsey was so refined that, in The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste, hecorrectly identified the grape and vintage of a Chablis Moutonne, a Chevalier Montrachet, a Schloss Johannisberger, a Laffite, a Clos Vougeot, a Grand Imperial Tokay, and, to climax, a true Napoleonic brandy with the Emperor’s seal on the hand-blown bottle. And he remained standing, too.

One senses that in all this culinary boasting, a statement was being made on the topic of breeding. Specifically, that gentlemen (i.e. someone familiar with la cuisine) could travel day-to-day among ne’er-do-wells (i.e., the perps) and win each contest of wits that might develop. Perhaps Nero Wolfe was the best example of the type. Rex Stout’s hero not only had a personal chef (Fritz Brenner) and his own cookbook (The Nero Wolfe Cookbook), but once ate, in the space of a single book (If Death Ever Slept) strawberry omelette, filet of beef in aspic, avocado, and shad roe with creole sauce, bread triangles fried in anchovy butter, and something called a hedgehog omelette.

Nowadays, of course, we live in a decidedly foodie age. Statements about breeding are frowned upon and nobody eats hedgehog omelet anymore. Likewise, everything about the food/crime sub-genre has changed. It’s actually become a sub-genre. We have our cook and restaurateur heroes: Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless, Amy Myers’s August Didier. We have caterer sleuths: Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear, Jerrilyn Farmer’s Madeleine Bean.

But the most foodie sub-sub-genre of them all, certainly, has to be the wine/food/mystery novel. Tony Aspler is arguably the most famous author in this group, having published numerous non-fiction wine books and being sufficiently plugged in to dedicate one of his Ezra Bryant mysteries to Ted Turner. But Nadia Gordon is my pick for her page-by-page debt to the most gastro-vino-centric culture in the Americas: the Napa Valley.

I read Death by the Glass, but any book bearing the brand mark “A Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery”will do, since each combines the same ingredients: a promptly delivered body, multiple suspects, derivable recipes, and, critically, a roster of reviewed wines. In the first 100 pages of Death by the Glass, we get taster’s notes on Red and Green Zinfandel, a “newish” bottle of Turnbull, and the 1967 Château de Marceline St. Quinisque Premier Grand Cru Reservee by Michel Verlan. No kidding.

The body in the story is one of the co-owners of Vinifera, a posh eatery up the valley. He cracks a nice bottle, takes a sip, and slumps over dead on page four, having just observed that he might have expected more sediment in a Burgundy that old. But Gordon’s tale is less focused on this victim than it is on the many California food-industry types that people its pages, a buff and almost impossibly food-savvy lot. Bartenders (bartenders!) say things like, “I just opened a bottle of Au Bon Climat Isabelle Pinot that’s drinking really nice,” while sipping from bottles of Calistoga water.

Still, there’s much to be learned from the Chez Panisse–inspired cooks, as we wade through the red herrings and the light-bulb moments in which Sunny muses that the diagnosis of cardiac seizure might not be correct. Much of this material deals with how food can be dangerous. A magnum of Champagne goes off in the cellar and explodes. Sunny identifies false morels just in time. (“Morels ought to be honeycombed. This mushroom looked wrinkled . . . . And then later, at the staff “family meal,” Nick the bartender’s glass of Chateau d’Yquem is polluted with poisonous yew needles.

“The Celts call [the yew] the Tree of Death,” Sunny’s tattooed cook-girrrl side kick, Rivka, observes, leaving aside the more remarkable fact that at Vinifera, cooks and waiters apparently pour d’Yquem – just, say, the most famous dessert wine in the world – at family meal.

Gordon tries for cookery grit too, although even this comes up rather fine somehow. Much is made, for example, of the layer of atomized food that ends up coating Sunny and Rivka over the course of a service. The girls are, at various points, described as feeling they are dipped in duck fat, shining with grease, finely coated in oil, oozing the smell of pork loin from their pores, and that their hair is slicked to their necks as if with aioli. Which is quite a lot of edible skin lubricant, really. And while it is described as unflattering, most of these moments arise when facing off with hunky co-workers, men whose appetites are clearly heightened by whatever chick-basting sauce is being described.

But then, the Napa Valley isn’t really where you’d go in search of grit, culinary or otherwise. Much better New York City. Say, Manhattan in the low teens. And the only world-famous food writer I know calling this part of the world home is the enormously funny, enormously coarse, now enormously rich, Anthony Bourdain. Chef Tony is, of course, the author of the mega-best-seller Kitchen Confidential. Prior to that, however, he published a couple of less-known novels: Bone in the Throatand Gone Bamboo. Not mysteries in the whodunit sense, but crime novels in the peopled-almost-entirely-by-felons sense.

Now Bourdain has released The Bobby Gold Stories, which is the first food/crime fiction title (may I predict) of the post-foodie era. It is certainly quite unlike anything that has come out of the Napa Valley, ever. Nadia Gordon’s sorority-gal cooks talk about a handsome co-worker by giggling and mouthing the words, “Super monster babe.” Whereas Bordain’s heroine Nikki – a cook who, I can tell you, without giving away much, ends up in the Witness Protection Program – describes a segment of a cook-lover’s anatomy as being (geometrically speaking) reminiscent of a pineapple. A dozen pages further on, with the same piece of a different cook’s anatomy, she observes merely, “Now that’s a penis and summarily “impales” herself. Different strokes, I suppose. But my real point is that Bourdain’s sauté bitch (as she is affectionately named in the novel) is a vehicle for a very contrary image of cook and food culture. This will not be unfamiliar to readers of Kitchen Confidential, which aired out a lot of the same culinary tropes: magnificent cussing, a cultural divide between dining room and kitchen, the celebration of lesser-known protein (onglet, marrow), and many, many references to the ’80s-era music that pumps out of the kitchens Bourdain loves: Ramones, Modern Lovers, Richard Hell & the Voidoids. No Billy Joel.

But by taking its view from the other side of the swinging door, Bourdain also places this tale of cooks and gangsters quite outside the foodie realm. The food and drink, for one, are not so much sensual as happily depraved. Nadia Gordon’s cooks nosh on corn flakes late at night and agonize about “gene-spliced seeds, irradiation, fungicides” and mourn for their immune systems. Bobby and Nikki down jager shots and Corona, vodka straight. They eat omelettes with pilfered beluga in the morning and monkfish with white-truffle risotto for dinner, very late. No poetic waxing, no foodie rhapsodies of any sort unless you count “White truffle!? White fucking truffles you’re giving the guy? … Why don’t you just yank down his fucking pants? Give him a nice sloppy fucking blow job?”

The only study of the dining room in Bobby Gold, in fact,is a hilarious passage about the over-anxious menu frippery of a gangster foodie named Eddie Fish, for whom “menus were like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rosetta Stone, the Kabbalah and Finnegan’s Wake all rolled into one impenetrable document.” The scene reads like baseball game from St. Urbain’s Horseman,a perfectly enclosed drama, trapping and displaying the ideals, the foibles, and arrogances of an entire cultural sub-group. In this case, that means the foodies for whom the waiter is irrelevant and the listed PEI oysters will never do. “You have Wellfleet oysters?” inquired Eddie, looking grave. Bobbynearly groaned out loud. Eddie wouldn’t have known a Wellfleet oyster if one had climbed up his leg, fastened itself on his dick and announced itself in fluent English.”

After painful deliberation, of course, Eddie orders the turbot with the balsamic reduction from the pork dish and the potatoes from the tuna. Then, after some number of pages filled with exuberant and violent thuggery, he dies, “mouth full of veal chop with sauce from the chicken.” And so, in Bourdain’s world, the dead man is in the front of the house.

Sic transit Gloria foodie.