This article was inspired by a recent episode called ‘Foodunnit?’ on the BBC’s The Food Chain podcast. It is well worth a listen, and explored some of the fascinating ways that food plays an important role in a criminal investigation.
‘Foodunnit?’ is a 27 minute foray into the different ways food has helped us to solve crimes, using four central cases entitled:
- The Torso in the Thames
- The Hand in the Biscuit Tin
- The Curious Incident of the Food Vacuum
- The Unsolved Case of the Disappearing Sausage Stew
Click the image to listen to ‘Foodunnit’ via the BBC!
Let’s explore the many ways food is linked to both real crimes and our favourite crime fiction stories!
The Clue is in the Food
Stomach contents are always examined at post mortem, and can tell us a lot about an unidentified person. Did you know that water contains a unique make-up of isotopes that can be linked to specific geographical areas? This is because the isotopes are variations of chemical elements, indicating specific geological formations the water has come into contact with, before being processed and made available in our homes. Isotopes can help an investigator map out likely areas of residence in an unidentified victim; for example if the victim has been drinking water from a chalky area, chalk-based geological areas can be drawn on a map.
I was also fascinated to learn that we can extract fingerprints from some foods such as eggs and apples. Of course these need to be processed ASAP before they begin to rot.
Hungry, Hungry Criminals
I was fascinated to learn that it is more common than you think for a criminal to eat food at a victim’s home. In particular, home invasions seem to be rife with criminals reaching into the fridge. Why is this?
Research by Richard Thomas-Wright in the podcast indicated that much of the time a home invasion is orchestrated following a drug or alcohol binge. Once the crime has been committed and the criminal begins to feel ‘at home’, the comedown from their high causes them to get peckish.
In fact, what the criminal eats before a crime can be their undoing. If he eats a takeaway before heading out to kill, the grease transferred onto the hands could be very easily be left behind on door handles, windows and kitchen counters. And boy do the forensics team love to find a greasy fingerprint!
Food as a Class Indicator
Writing about food in crime fiction is massively popular as a secondary theme, and so it should be; after all even the most dedicated investigators and scheming killers have to eat at some point in your story!
In the golden days of Agatha Christie, food was an indicator of the consumer’s class and wealth; the more sophisticated the choice of meal and wine, the classier the consumer. Take for example Hercule Poirot’s love of sirop de cassis and gourmet dining. Other examples of gourmand investigators include Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.
“The English do not have a cuisine, they have only the food. Like the meat: overcooked; the vegetables: too soft; the cheese: inedible. And the day the English create their own wines is the day I will return to Belgium.” Hercule Poirot, The Yellow Iris
Of course food habits can also indicate personality; in the case of Hercule Poirot, Christie introduced his pernickety attitude towards food to convey that he was particular, thorough, neat and precise.
Food Stimulates the Senses
In modern day crime fiction, the food sub-theme is perhaps more closely linked to those stories set in ‘other’ cultures as a means to paint a colourful image of an unknown country to the, largely Westernised, crime fiction reader base. Ian Fleming used his descriptions of food as a way to stimulate the readers’ senses, drawing them into the story of James Bond. As so-called ‘exotic’ crime fiction is on the rise, taking readers to new, dazzling settings, and with it, a need for vivid description. Describing another culture’s food in terms of the texture, smell and taste draws the reader into the story.
Food and Crime Fiction: Ying and Yang
The inclusion of food in a crime story could be thought of as a theme that directly opposes the primary focus of such a novel: violence. The world of crime fiction is dark, grim and painful. Food on the other hand is the life force of humanity, offering us release, pleasure and self-indulgence. What better way to highlight the sheer horror of a murder than to offer a welcome, opposing counterpart in the form of food.
This juxtaposition is often shown to us in the form of an investigator unwinding with wine or spirits, or hankering after a particular food in an effort to cleanse themselves of the stressful day; food and drink helps our favourite characters to relax in the face of evil.
Writing Food into Your Crime Story: Some Ideas!
- Your killer gets hungry post-kill and helps themselves to the contents of your victim’s fridge
- The murderer decides to live in the victim’s house for a while, making themselves at home
- Your killer is mid-snack when the police come knocking; the half-eaten snack (complete with bite-marks) is discarded on the run
- An interrupted meal is a clue to investigators that the victim had an unexpected visitor
- The killer gets to know the victim and learns of an allergy that they use to kill them
- Killer and victim are linked as rival food establishment owners
- The post mortem reveals that your victim has recently eaten unusual cuisine only available in one restaurant
Want to read more about the links between food and crime fiction? Read these fab articles!
Over to you
How would you weave food into your crime story? Tell me in the comments!