A tale of crime and cooking

A glance around most bookshops would suggest what Elizabeth Farrelly's publishing friend says more bluntly: not much sells besides cookery and crime.

This had me wondering what lies behind the appeal of both, and if there's a connection between them. If there is, I think it might have something to do with the satisfaction of appetites. An appetite, on the one hand, for adventure, justice, revelation, restoration, above all, perhaps, for story; and on the other, not simply for food, but for creativity, community, husbandry, bounty. Perhaps they offer simpler satisfactions than the more intellectually challenging works that languish on the shelves, but the appetites they satisfy are not in themselves unhealthy or untoward.

Yet if these appetites are perennial, why do they drive the book market now in a way they haven't before? Perhaps because we live in an age of satisfaction. If the Rolling Stones couldn't get none, we can get plenty, usually at the swipe of a card or the click of a button. And if the Stones' idea of satisfaction was too lofty (which seems doubtful), ours is simple enough. In an age where our wealth lets us gratify our wishes more readily than ever, our wishes are more than ever commensurate to what money can buy.

That's the cynical view I suppose. We like crime novels and cookbooks because they meet most simply our simplest needs. The other view might be that our simplest needs tell us more about ourselves than our more complex needs. That if the alternative to crime and cooking is smudgy, plotless literary fiction that matters terribly in some way we don't quite understand, or literary non-fiction that rambles over wide terrain without arriving anywhere, then maybe crime and cooking offer more genuine assistance with our project of human being.

To support such a view, Toni Morrison might be summoned. “For me, Art is the restoration of order. It may discuss all sorts of terrible things, but there must be satisfaction at the end. A little bit of hunger, but also satisfaction.”


I’ve never really been into crime as a genre, but this year I’ve encountered and enjoyed quite a few criminal creations. The ABC’s Marple and Poirot series got me hooked (thanks iview!), and inspired me to read some Agatha Christie. I’ve also read two Peter Temple books: a far cry from Christie, but undoubtedly in the same tradition. All the contemporary crime shows and books have roots in crime’s progenitor, Arthur Conan Doyle, but stylistically and aesthetically, they’re very different. More on Peter Temple soon.

About Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, Sayers et al, there’s a decorum that now makes them seem sterile and contrived, and terribly innocent (not unlike the village of Midsomer). The detective always gets his man, and he always gets his cup of tea (or his opium pipe in Holmes’ case). The villains are frightfully easy to spot: if anyone has a limp, a pronounced Russian accent, and is called Boris, he’s almost bound to be your bloke - unless he's the good guy in a stupendous disguise. The clues are placed with precision for ease of retrieval in the unmasking scene, which invariably takes place in the drawing room, with everyone, conveniently including the murderer, present.

But even with all these now slightly daffy traits, there’s something satisfying about these plots, and in the richness of the worlds in which they unfold. There are also profound observations about human nature. It’s these which make the stories more than puzzles. And it’s these which I suspect constitute the enduring appeal of crime fiction. At their core is a hunt, bloody and athletic, for truth. There’s a primordial regard for justice, an elementary acknowledgment of sin that will not tolerate ambiguities. While crime is mired in the cultural ‘lowness’ of genre fiction, it yet provides a moral certainty that ‘high’ art often fails to provide, something on which the human spirit can feed. While the body count may be horrifically high, so too are the stakes – each death has its echo in the moral universe; each body counts.