Sam Dyke – international gourmet!
You know what private investigators are like – they’re forever sitting in cars, watching a suspect, eating a burger or a KFC and peeing into a bottle …
Okay, that was probably too much information.
In fact, I’m not sure it’s like that at all these days. Or ever. In fact, the first time I became aware of food in the context of private eye novels was in the Spenser books of Robert B. Parker. Spenser would return from a day’s work being funny with clients and bad guys, reach into the fridge and pull out the exact ingredients needed to make a fascinating and little-known Italian dish. Or an incredible salad with a vinaigrette that he made himself while talking to his dog, Pearl. He was a sophisticated man who was named after an English poet and in fact often quoted poetry himself. I don’t recall him ever peeing in a bottle.
This series began in the 1970s, and when I caught up with Parker’s early novels ten years later, it wasn’t long before I started seeing other writers doing a similar thing with their own protagonists – Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, for example, would whip up something quickly in his kitchen … and often we wouldn’t know until the end whether he was going to eat it himself or give it to his cat.
These PIs were obviously sophisticated above their station in life, but when I started writing my own series, set around a working class investigator whose clients usually came from the posh end of town, I wanted to include food occasionally (a PI has to eat, after all) together with a singular musical taste, which had been another genre-defining trope that was growing at the time. (Turns out Sam is into alt.country. Who knew?)
So Sam Dyke is a working-class man with the appropriate tastes for a British Private Eye: we see him making chili con carne, buying take-out curries from Indian restaurants and occasionally throwing together a quick spaghetti Bolognese. Writing that down, I realise they’re all foreign dishes, but in the UK we moved away from eating Sunday roasts every day (though I probably would if I could) and in the 70s broadened our tastes. Over the course of the ten full-length novels so far, Sam has experimented occasionally—when he’s dined out with a client or colleague—but the meals that are comfort foods for him are those he knew when he was growing up in the 1990s, although like many of us, if he’s out on a job he’ll buy a burger (another foreign food …) or perhaps a sandwich, which he’ll wash down with a Sprite or 7-Up. In the latest book, The Two Fathers, he eats far too much bread and take-away than is good for his health, but I can’t seem to talk any sense into him.
From the very first book in the series, Altered Life, I’ve had to constantly bear in mind that the characters I’ve dreamed up are actual physical beings with attendant needs. In fact, finding time for them to eat and sleep and bathe is a nuisance when you just want to get on with the story. You try to slide past these needs when possible, but without making your characters seem superhuman. Personally, I can’t seem to last more than two hours without eating something, so I don’t know how Sam does it … maybe that’s why he’s slimmer than I am.
Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Keith!