City as Character: La Serenissima


Photo credit: johngregory via Compfight

There are books and movies in which the place – the setting of the events – is as much a character in the plot as the main players. Think of London, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York in Woody Allen movies. But there are also many other examples, where the atmospheric sense of the story would simply dissipate if it were set somewhere else – Barcelona in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Savannah, Georgia in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Los Angeles in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (or really any one of his books featuring Easy Rawlins). You get the idea – location can be a crucial element of a story well told. I was thinking about this the other day, and it struck me that it would be an interesting exercise to look at places in the world that are compelling or unforgettable in ways that would make them a prime candidate for being a character in a novel.  This is completely subjective, of course (that’s what makes it fun, right?), but the first name that popped into my head when I came up with this idea was Venice. What other city can one think of that almost invites mystery and intrigue into it, as though to say, this is the offspring that I am destined to nurture in my womb?

Think about it – this is a city that sits atop over one hundred islands on a marshy lagoon in the Adriatic, has no cars or roadways, and yet has a rich cultural, political and artistic heritage stretching back over more than a millennium. It’s barely a quarter the size of London but has over 400 bridges. The main means of transport is by boat, yet it has a maze of streets, including one of the tiniest in the world, a mere 53 cm wide. Houses are numbered by district, not according to the street, which makes it so confusing that even the mail workers can’t figure it out.  This is the city of carnivals, masked people, and acqua alta (the high tide that floods the famed Piazza San Marco). What an ideal setting for murder, mayhem, conspiracy, and subterfuge! And to my immense gratification, Venice does not disappoint, at least in this sense. I did not have to wander long in my trove of mystery and historical fiction to discover a rich vein of material set in this City Most Serene (a clever façade, if ever there was one).

Let’s start with Donna Leon and her series of contemporary police procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. These are all set squarely and unapologetically in Venice, a city, which ironically (according to the author) boasts “very little violent crime.” Death at La Fenice, for instance, chronicles the death by cyanide poisoning of world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer during a performance of La Traviata at the famed opera house, Teatro la Fenice. The New York Times Book Review calls the book a “stunning procedural which lures us away from the glittering Rialto into the working class heart of Venice.” Another review gushes about how Leon has spun a “challenging mystery, a sophisticated drama, and a unique glimpse of a medieval society that still flourishes.” As a complete aside, Donna Leon, for those of you who care for that sort of thing, is on Hillary Clinton’s reading list.

Venice and La Fenice again feature in John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, which weaves an intriguing tale around the real-life fire that almost completely destroyed the opera house in 1996. In his trademark atmospheric style (very reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Berendt evokes all the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice in this story, filled with richly detailed characters and enough plot twists to fill, well, a John Berendt novel. Not unexpectedly, given its medieval and mystical flair, Venice also makes a prominent appearance in one of Dan Brown’s thrillers, Inferno, where it’s home to a particularly significant plot point and the eventual denouement.

And finally, just to tread a little off the beaten path, here’s a work that doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one genre, but is a hidden gem in its own right – Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a fictional depiction of the encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino is sometimes spoken of in the same hushed tones reserved for the likes of Umberto Eco, so he’s no lightweight when it comes to spinning a yarn with a delicate balance of literary heft and popular appeal. Invisible Cities has all the magical realism, historical detail, and romantic fantasy that a city like Venice deserves. Even Kublai Khan ultimately realizes that every fantastical place that Marco Polo describes in their encounter is some version of the Venice he loves.

And what more can a city ask for, than to become a character in a novel?

Books mentioned in this post

Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon

City of Falling Angels, John Berendt

Inferno, Dan Brown

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The History of Food

history of foodWhen my friend Srikrishna and I started this blog, we were largely motivated by our shared interest in history and crime fiction, and a gravitational attraction to good writing. So the tagline for our blog required almost no thought — anything other than “Exploring history, mystery and writing” would have seemed absurd. In hindsight, I wish I had resisted that urge to commit so early in the game — because it’s clear to me now that I should have held out a little longer, to find some way to sneak “food” into the title. Over time, I found little ways to make up for that momentary lapse of judgment — by weaving in mentions of food into our podcasts, and writing the occasional blog post featuring cuisine from antiquity. But somehow, none of that ever seemed enough — and matters eventually came to a head yesterday when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class. Hearing the hosts, Tracy and Holly, talk about the history of pizza, finally sent me over the edge. There is absolutely no way my name is going to be associated with a blog site related to history, without food taking center stage. Not on my watch.

So here we go, with a question I should have asked, well, a long time ago: when did we start making and eating food? No, don’t laugh. It’s a serious question, deserving of more thoughtful answers than “Duh, we killed and ate the animals we hunted.” Fortunately for all of us, this is a subject of deep inquiry — food history is a legitimate field of study in its own right, which examines not only the history of food, but also the cultural, social and economic impacts of food through the ages. Just the sheer number of questions that food history attempts to answer is impressive. When and why did humans start cooking food? How did our ancestors know what to eat and what to avoid? Who came up with the first recipe? What is the origin of some of the foods we take for granted today? When were eating utensils invented? What is the origin of table manners (or lack thereof)?

Fascinating as these questions are, I doubt that many of us (including me, I’m ashamed to say) necessarily want to spend the next few years wading through the many thousands of pages that food historians have compiled. The key here is strike a balance between satisfying our curiosity and not spending so much time on the history that it affects our culinary pursuits in the present. So here’s what I think is a carefully calibrated compromise. I have compiled a set of resources below, for your reading pleasure. Before you start skimming (or clicking) through them, make sure to set yourself a sampling table of your favorite victuals and libations to accompany you on your quest.

And so, without further ado, here’s a top 5 list on a subject that I should have made a non-negotiable part of this blog:

The Food Timeline – an online resource with links to the answers to many of the questions we raised here, along with a timeline of significant food “events” from prehistory to modern times.

Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present — everything from the evolution of food habits to social and agricultural practices, to religious beliefs and dietary rules, to the origin of pasta and chocolate.

Food: The History of Taste – what is food, if we don’t understand how tastes have evolved from antiquity to the present day? From our earliest proclivities for the sweet and the fatty to our acquired sensibilities for spice, nuance, and subtlety — this well-researched tome has it all.

Hungry History – a delightful collection of vignettes from the History Channel on topics ranging from how the tradition of cookies and milk at Christmas originated, to the history of Tex-Mex cuisine, to the backstory of the humble pickle.

The New York Public Library’s Culinary History Section – no self-respecting listicle on this topic can be complete without this comprehensive resource. The history of everything that is anything to the palate — from baking to condiments to wine-making to gastronomy, with pointers to encyclopedias, reference books, collections and scholarly articles on the subject.

And, lastly, just to show how genuinely interested we are in dragging you kicking and screaming into this subject, here’s a recent article in the Washington Post that explores the relationship between food history, politics, society, and the rise and fall of civilizations — all in the context of the ordinary potato. Consider this our bonus 6th item in the Top 5 list!

One final bit of advice: sample this topic the way you would a well-prepared meal. It’s all about tasting, savoring and appreciating what’s been laid out for you. It’s not about stuffing your face, although you are totally free to do that if that’s what you’re into.

Let us know what you think.


Murder in 500 Words


Photo: Poughkeepsie Day School

“It’s one thing to talk about this in the abstract, Fred, but tell me – have you ever, like, actually killed someone?”

“Other than my tours of duty with the Marines? No. But I kill people with words, every day.”

“Oh, come on, Fred. Killing people off in novels is pure fiction, pardon the pun.”

“No, I’m not talking about my novels. It’s my reporting work, my crime beat. People die every day, and I write about them.”

“But that’s just not the same thing, Fred. For one thing, you had no hand in their deaths, other than writing about it after the fact.”

“Well, the public at large doesn’t know they’re dead until I write about them. These people die in the public mind only when they read what’s in the papers.”

“Really, Fred? You’re going with the ‘If a tree falls in a forest…’ trope?”

“It’s actually more than that. And I’m quite serious. Alright, how about a concrete example? Joe Bloe rats on his Mafia bosses, goes into the Federal Witness Protection Program, and becomes John Doe. And Joe Bloe disappears. Gone, poof! I’d say that classifies as a death.”

“But not in a physical sense! At best, that works as a loss of identity.”

“I think you’re being naïve, if I may say so. Our identities define us. Or have you not read about the Ship of Theseus?”

“I can’t believe I’m listening to this. Ship of Theseus? Tearing down and re-creating an identity doesn’t change physical and biological facts.”

“But it gets to the very heart of what we know, how we know it, and how that knowledge defines reality.”

“I’m a simple guy, Fred. We can debate this in the philosophical realm all you want, but it all falls apart the moment you get down to biology. Death has to involve a lifeless body, you know — a heart that’s stopped ticking. Habeas corpus, and all that. Produce the body!”

“But we accept death everyday, simply on the basis of having read about it. We assume someone, somewhere must have seen the body. In our minds, in the minds of my half-a-million subscribers, these people are dead.”

“Alright, fine. I’ll go along. Where are we going with this?”

“Well, surely you have heard of identity theft by now? My thesis is not unlike the Joe Bloe example. Hack into the system, erase all trace of an identity – and bingo, we have identity death. Then we write about it, and it all becomes quite real.”

“I think you’re getting quite carried away, Fred. You’re banking on anonymity here. Those newspaper deaths you keep talking about – they work because we don’t know any of those people personally. You can erase my identity, but my wife would still know I exist. My kids, my friends, …come on!”

“And I think you’re counting on all of those things a little too much. You clearly haven’t thought about this as much as I have. It’s quite powerful, actually. All I need is a test case, and it will become quite clear that this is not idle speculation.”

“A test case?”

“Yes, exactly. What if I erased your identity, for example?”

“Well, I’ll just call my wife. No, wait, even better. I’ll Face Time her. You can say hello, if you want.”

“On your cell phone? You really haven’t thought through this, have you?”

“OK, fine, I get that. My cell phone wouldn’t work anymore because I’m ‘theoretically’ dead. But, I can call her on the landline. I can drive home and see her in person.”

“I don’t want to burst your bubble, but there are a few minor issues that might prevent you from getting there. The police, for one, will want to know what you’re doing in a vehicle that once belonged to someone else, now deceased. Not to mention how immeasurably crude and insensitive it would be to put your wife, or should I say, your widow, through all that while she is mourning your loss.”

“Fred, I think you’ve been brooding here by yourself a little too much, man. You’ve totally lost your marbles! I think I should leave now.”

“Oh, not at all. I’m quite alright, thank you. And I wouldn’t go anywhere just yet. Especially not without reading this first.”

“What is this? … Oh my god, what sort of sick joke is this? Fred, this is my obituary!”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. I needed a test case, remember? You’re dead, Jake. Or Dan, or Frank, or whatever your name is in the digital afterlife. It’s quite a nice obituary, actually. One of my better pieces. And quite generous, too. I gave you 500 words.”

Witness to History

forrest gump

Source: IMDB

One of the engaging aspects of the 1994 Oscar-winning movie, Forrest Gump, is the serendipitous way the protagonist finds himself smack-dab in the middle of pivotal moments in 20th-century history, rubbing shoulders with the political leaders and celebrities of his day. He encounters Elvis Presley and John Lennon. He gets to meet President Kennedy. He fights in the Vietnam War and ends up getting a Congressional Medal of Honor from Lyndon Johnson. By sheer happenstance, he becomes witness to the events of the Watergate scandal. He participates in Ping Pong diplomacy with the Chinese as a member of the US Table Tennis team. None of these events or celebrity photo ops are necessarily pivotal to the plot or central to the soul of the character – but they add another dimension to the movie because the historical milestones and celebrity sightings bring an unexpected thrill of familiarity to the viewer.

Steven Saylor Rubicon

Image  Steven Saylor

I find myself in a similar situation with the historical mystery genre. When I read Steve Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, for example, there’s much more to my literary enjoyment of the books than the character of Gordianus the Finder, the authenticity of the historical settings, the cleverness of the plot structure, or the accessibility of the dialog. The opportunity to experience significant events in ancient Roman history, or get up close and personal (in a manner of speaking) with the leading lights of those times is, without a doubt, one of the added attractions. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s something I actively look forward to each time I approach the next volume in the series.

Julius Caesar

Bust of Julius Caesar, from Wikipedia

Where else can you find your crime-solving protagonist come face to face with the remains of none other than Alexander the Great, mummified in his golden sarcophagus? Or have a chance encounter with King Ptolemy of Egypt? Spartacus is but a name shrouded in myth until Gordianus is brought in to solve a case set right in the middle of the slave general’s revolt. Cicero is no more than a paragraph in a history book featuring famous Roman orators until Gordianus assists him in one of his most famous legal cases. That is when we actually get to know the man behind the closing arguments. Even the more well-known and thoroughly documented figures of Roman history, from Marcus Crassus (the richest man of those times, and arguably of all time), to Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar himself, all come alive as real people in these stories.

The New York Times Book Review enthusiastically nods in agreement: “Saylor puts such great detail and tumultuous life into his scenes that the sensation of rubbing elbows with the ancients is quite uncanny.” None other than the noted Shakespearean thespian, Sir Derek Jacobi, calls the series “an enthralling re-creation of its time and place, a fascinating piece of story-telling.” And Sir Derek should know – he played the role of Emperor Claudius in the universally acclaimed cinematic version of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.

So, that’s my pitch – if my fevered rantings about historical fiction can be called that. Read these stories – not just for historical authenticity, or the intellectual stimulus of unraveling yet another crime mystery – but for the opportunity to meet the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnsons, Elvis Presleys, and John Lennons of bygone eras. Walk the streets of ancient Rome (or Alexandria, or Pompeii) side-by-side with your fictional companion of letters – you never know who you might bump into on your journey. That lady over there, for example, followed by a retinue of attendants – she might well be Calpurnia, seeking to engage our fictional sleuth in getting to the bottom of a conspiracy to take down none other than her husband, Julius Caesar.

Poisons in Historical Fiction – Podcast #5

From Socrates to the Emperor Augustus to Lucrezia Borgia and many other notables across Europe and Asia, history is scattered with examples of the victims and perpetrators of death by poison.

So naturally, in perhaps another instance of art imitating life, historical mysteries have their fair share of the use of poisons as the murder weapon. And having talked about cuisine in historical mysteries before, it didn’t take long for us to make the connection between food and murder most foul. So that’s where we take you in this next podcast.

Here are the authors and book we mention:

Susanna Gregory, A Deadly Brew, A Poisonous Plot
Steven Saylor, The Venus Throw, The Judgement of Caesar
Ellis Peters, Monk’s Hood, One Corpse Too Many
Sara Poole, Poison, The Borgia Betrayal

For more on this subject, check out our blog post, which includes some further suggested reading. And don’t forget to let us know about your favorite historical mysteries featuring poisons!

Food in Historical Fiction – Podcast #4

What makes historical mysteries such compelling reads? It’s not just the historical settings or the suspense and pace of a rollicking good bit of detective fiction. It’s also the fact that when it’s done well, historical fiction can give you a visceral sense of being right there. And food is as much a part of being a spectator to a bygone era as the sights, smells, colors, social interactions, and daily goings-on of the particular locale that the stories are set in.

Besides, we might as well admit it – we’re foodies, and descriptions of food and cuisine add as much to our enjoyment of this genre as historical settings, page-turning plot lines and character development do!

So in this podcast, we explore the cuisines of antiquity and how they play a part in the stories that we love to read. Let us know what ancient cuisines tickle your palate, and your favorite novels featuring foods!

Here are the particular cuisines we talk about, and the authors that feature them in their works:

Roman: Steven Saylor, Caroline Lawrence
Egyptian: PC Doherty
Medieval English: PC Doherty, Ellis Peters
Viking: Bernard Cornwell

You can also check out our blog post on some spicy mysteries in historical fiction.


Garum, Asafoetida and Other Spicy Mysteries


Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova

I had no idea what garum was until I read Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series of detective novels set in ancient Rome. Now I know that it’s a salty, fermented fish sauce that the Romans used to liberally garnish their dishes with. As for asafoetida, I was already quite familiar with it, having grown up in India, where it’s a popular culinary ingredient. I used to wonder what compelled my mother to use such a pungent, even fetid, spice in her cooking, but since my mother is a great cook, it didn’t make sense to argue with her. It was only later that I found out, from reading historical mysteries, that the Romans were almost as fond of asafoetida as my mother is, using it in a broad variety of dishes, and holding it in great acclaim for all manner of healthful benefits. Ironically, despite the Romans’ love of garum and asafoetida, both are almost non-existent in European cuisine as we know it today.

What does any of this culinary arcana have to do with historical mysteries? The short answer is that I’m a foodie. And as such, descriptions of food and cuisine in the historical mysteries I devour (no pun intended) add to my appreciation of the genre almost as much as historical settings, page-turning plotlines and character development do.

But there is a slightly longer answer as well. Part of what attracts me to historical novels in the first place is the opportunity to learn (or in some cases re-learn) history in a way that really sparks my imagination. The challenge in reading history, as Srikrishna puts it so well in his piece elsewhere on this blog, “is that it could easily become a mind-numbing series of who blinded, deposed, imprisoned, or married whom, with names, places and dates running into one another.” By contrast, historical fiction, when done well, gets me away from the dry minutiae of the who-did-what-to-whom kind of narrative and instead directly embeds me in the sights, smells, colors, social interactions, and daily goings-on of the particular locale that it’s set in. And isn’t food an essential element of that embeddedness?

ancient cuisineFor a more in-depth exposition of the cuisine of the ancients, John Donahue’s Food and Drink in Antiquity is an invaluable sourcebook. Also, don’t miss Steven Saylor’s excellent little essay on Roman cuisine where you can read his take on garum and asafoetida.

So the next time you read a historical mystery, soak it all in – atmosphere, cuisine and all – even if that involves a fermented fish sauce and a spice that is referred to in some parts of the world as the Devil’s Dung!