What-are-you-reading-Wednesday – Dying for Chocolate

September 30, 2009

Last weekend I read a mystery novel by Diane Mott Davidson, Dying for Chocolate. I was going through the Indiana Humanities Council’s collection of books for reading and discussion groups, looking for novels related to food. This book was one of several titles containing the word “chocolate” (Like Water for Chocolate, Chocolat), so I decided to give it a try.

First of all, it was a lot of fun. But I also discovered that Dying for Chocolate is a prime example of a subgenre that has become very popular in the last few decades – the culinary mystery. Like all detective fiction, it offers the satisfaction of an intellectual puzzle, on the one hand, and a morality play, on the other. The master detective solves the crime, and the wicked are caught and punished.

CookingThe culinary mystery, however, adds some delightful and delicious ingredients to the basic mix. Like other “cozy” mysteries, it often takes place in an idyllic setting, such as a small town or village, populated by easily recognizable characters, whether eccentric, endearing, or just ordinary. The detective is usually a woman who is a caterer, innkeeper, or other purveyor of food. In Dying for Chocolate, the heroine is a caterer and single mother who has to track down her boyfriend’s killer while coping with demanding clients and gourmet menus. Culinary mysteries often include recipes for the dishes described, and it’s hard to imagine the book group that could discuss this novel without at least a package of store-bought frosted brownies on hand.

The setting for Dying for Chocolate is Aspen Meadow, Colorado, but the Council’s collection also has culinary mysteries from other regions of the country. Joanne Fluke’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder is set at the Cookie Jar Bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota, owned by Hannah Swenson. Tamar Myers’ No Use Dying Over Spilled Milk features Magdalena Yoder, Mennonite proprietor of the Pennsylvania Dutch Inn. Nancy Pickard’s The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders takes sleuth Eugenia Potter from her New England base to her ranch in Arizona. As small business owners, these women have a lot on their plates.

For those who can’t consume just one, most culinary mysteries are part of a series of novels. Like Agatha Christie herself, these writers are very prolific. They also have a penchant for puns in their titles. My favorites: Tamar Myers’ The Crepes of Wrath and the next book by Diane Mott Davidson, The Cereal Murders.

Also recommended (by Keira Amstutz): Julie Hyzy’s State of the Onion (White House Chef Mystery series).

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