MURDER On The Menu In this batch of mysteries, solving a crime is nothing to truffle with

January 26, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

There are culinary mysteries, such as why the souffle falls, and why the bread doesn't rise, and how many sticks of butter make 1 cup.

And then there are culinary mysteries, such as why did the lights go out at the college-advisory dinner, and who put the poison in the movie-set prop cup, and why did the Manor Park Hotel waitress end up dead at a highway rest stop?

Now those are dilemmas you can really sink your teeth into.

Sinking in their teeth and getting involved up to their eyeballs is standard procedure for such up-to-the-minute culinary snoops as Eugenia Potter, Ellie Haskell, Goldy Bear, Faith Fairchild, Auguste Didier, Aristide Pamplemousse, Ellie Simons, Darina Lisle, and Natasha O'Brien, among others, who live and cook and capture crooks in the pages of a burgeoning number of gastronomic mystery series.

"I think people really like to read about food," says Paige Rose, co-owner of the Mystery Loves Company book shop in Fells Point, "and if there's a good mystery involved -- well . . ."

Kathy Harig, the book shop's other co-owner, says there is definitely a growing interest in books of this type. "People come in and ask particularly" for such stories, she says. The last year brought a bumper crop of new books in virtually every series.

Culinary mysteries generally fall into the category of "cozy" mysteries, Ms. Harig says. These stories lack the blood and guts of thriller mysteries, and don't depend on the intricacies of ballistics and forensics for a solution. They tend to appeal more ,, to women, but men are buying them as well.

"There's a lot of gourmet male cooks," Ms. Harig says. Culinary mysteries appeal to "anybody who's interested in cooking -- that's the deciding factor."

A domestic setting

Ms. Harig says a cozy mystery usually takes place in a domestic setting, and often involves a wide cast -- "a lot of different kinds of people, 'characters,' who are all related in this mystery" -- and the mystery must be resolved from among this group.

"There's always been an element in cozy mysteries of food, or food preparation, or dining, or having tea," Ms. Harig says, but in a culinary mystery, the main character or sleuth is directly involved with food. Caterers are good characters, because they move around a lot and meet a lot of different people.

There are at least four caterers among the current crop of culinary sleuths: Dorothy Cannell's Ellie Haskell, Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Bear, Katherine Hall Page's Faith Fairchild, and Janet Laurence's Darina Lisle. Eugenia Potter, in the series begun by Virginia Rich and continued since her death in 1984 by Nancy Pickard, is a noted New England chef. Auguste Didier, hero-sleuth of Amy Myers' Victorian mystery series, is a chef. Aristide Pamplemousse is a reviewer for a French travel guide in Michael Bond's "gastronomic mystery" series. Ellie Bernstein is a diet counselor in Denise Dietz's "Throw Darts at a Cheesecake."

Natasha O'Brien, a world-renowned pastry chef, is probably the most widely known culinary sleuth, because Nan and Ivan Lyons' first novel about her in 1976, "Somebody Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe," was turned into a movie starring Jacqueline Bisset as Natasha and George Segal as her food-entrepreneur ex-husband Maximilan Ogden. (The 1978 movie was called "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe.")

Natasha currently appears in a sequel, "Somebody is Killing the Great Chefs of America" (Little, Brown, 1993, $19.95), a delicious romp across the American culinary scene that skewers food magazines, restaurant critics, trendy restaurateurs, celebrity chefs, culinary contests and silly food fads. The authors sprinkle the story with real chefs -- Wolfgang Puck, Larry Forgione, Bradley Ogden, Jimmy Schmidt and Paul Prudhomme all show up to cook with Natasha at the White House in Chapter Two -- but only fictitious chefs are bumped off.

There is something as addictive as potato chips about these tales of death and table fare. Most are not long, and a swift reader can gobble up several over a gloomy weekend. While some have plots as limp as overcooked spaghetti, or dialog as stiff as a wire whisk, the best are clever, rich and well-crafted, like chocolate truffles without the calories.

And there's no mystery in the appeal of stories that combine puzzles and pastries. "Food is an aspect of our human life that is part of all our stories," says Diane Mott Davidson, author of three Goldy Bear mysteries, among the best-known of the genre. "Look at the story of Adam and Eve -- it's a dispute over food."

Ms. Bear is a caterer in the fictitious Aspen Meadow, Colo., and her jobs and menus and recipes weave through the pages of murder and mayhem in the mountains. The latest Goldy story, called "The Cereal Murders," concerns evil doings at a prestigious private school.

A woman of the '90s

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