FOOD OR SEX? by Margie Orford

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I have reached the Duke of Wellington’s ‘publish and be damned’ phase of writing. My book is off my hands and at the printers. But danger lurks, in the form of earnest interviewers. ‘What did I think,’ one asked me the other day, ‘about the fact that food is replacing sex as the recreational activity of choice in crime fiction.’

This is a theory that has been bandied about by recently by people who read crime rather than write it.I have not given it much thought as I find wrestling a plot into a semblance of coherence enough. The last thing I need is my heroine slacking off and eating strawberries in bed with handsome men. I am not paid to write Joanna Trollope novels, after all. I have tension to build, innocents to kill, killers to catch. Food in my experience, is like sex. It needs a bit the languid leeway of time, wine and the possibility of seconds to be a pleasure.

That said, it is obvious that crime fiction and the never-to-be-dismissed pleasure of the quickie have a long and entwined history. You only have to look at the covers of early crime classics – the gumshoe with a cocked gun, the bottle-blonde with the heaving bosom in the background – to know that. Crime fiction depends on big-hearted good-time girls. From Damon Runyon’s sassy broads to the high-heeled, wasp-waisted film noir blondes, to the easy lays who smoke their way through the Elmore Leonards. Much of the sex, sadly, has been of the pounce-and-thrust variety. The act itself,  a knee-trembler with a new girl every fifty pages or so, never takes long. The etiquette of foreplay and after-cuddle must never get in the way of our hero from putting his fedora hat back on his head and hunting down the bad guys.

All very manly and easy for the male ego to manage, but I can’t imagine that it did much for the women. Does that explain the sudden interest in  food? Did the blondes get sick of amateur sex with amateur sleuths and decide to seek more reliable pleasures elsewhere? Food certainly is important in crime fiction and some of it is getting better. This is partly due to the fact that we read so much crime fiction in translation now. Take the Italians, for instance. Who would not get distracted by prosciutto and genuine Parmesan, or lovingly made pasta marinara? Although it might be best never to think about how many corpses the Italian mafia feeds to the pigs, if they haven’t tossed into the sea around Sicily. That said, the Cosa Nostra seems about as intractable a problem as our Government Tender Nostra, so those crime writers have my sympathies. They do need something to fill up the pages of a hopeless case, and the food is good. I’d chose good Italian food over fast food any day, but just as we inherited the American equivalent of the knee-trembler with the genre, so we inherited fast food.

I am not a takeaway girl. Proved, I think, when I found a Freudian typo that slipped, as they do, into my new book. One of my favourite characters, Rita Mkhize, is hungry, so she stops off in town only to return to the cop car with bad of takeaways. My eagle-eyed editor restored the takeaways to their greasy bag.

My relationship with fast food has been perfunctory to say the least. I had a MacDonald’s burger in 1989, and I sampled some KFC in 1992. That was enough. Fast food – like fast cars, fast women and fast sex – is one of the constraints of crime fiction that is only partly to do with a failure of the gastronomic imagination. One solution is to send one’s characters to eat out, which means that many fine Cape Town establishments feature in my novels.

Although I never get pizza and I bake my own cakes, I have been unable to pass any of my cooking skills onto my lead character. Clare Hart is of necessity a woman with anorexic tendencies. Not, mind you, from bad body image so much as from sheer busy-ness. This is the problem with good food. Crime writers make their poor, hardworking characters rush about like maniacs. You tell me when the hell you get to bake biscuits when half the gangsters on the Cape Flats are trying to you?

Anyway, too much slow food would lead to slow sex. And all of that would produce way too much of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, for a thriller. Although I’d love to write a book that had the space for my orange and polenta biscuit recipe.

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