On Thursday, I had a conversation with a librarian in Doncaster who would like me to take part in a literary festival that will be run in May by the Doncaster Library Service. After further discussion, we decided that it would probably be more effective for everyone if, instead of participating in one of the library-based events, I were to run a couple of writers’ workshops, one at a local school and one at an open prison. I warmed to this idea immediately; as a bookseller, I have supplied books to two open prisons; more recently, I have read the MS of a fascinating memoir written by a writer-in-residence who works in a prison in the North-East. I shall be happy to work further with the prison community if I can be of use. I’ll write more about these two events nearer the time.
Before we decided on this plan of action, when the idea was still that I should participate in a library-focused event, our chat had been about what sort of writer we should choose to present with me. To my initial surprise, she suggested a cookery writer, but, the more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought that this was. Aside from the interest in food (among many other subjects) that both this blog and the many other crime-writing blogs to which it has been introduced (and introduced itself) have expressed, now that I’ve thought about it, I think that a crime writer and a cookery writer have a lot in common.
The similarities are there if you look for them. Firstly, and of most importance, we are both genuinely interested in the craft of writing: although the crime writer’s main purpose is to devise an interesting plot peopled with intriguing characters and the cookery writer’s is to develop practical recipes that people really want to try out, the means, for both of us, is as important as the end. In a certain sense, we are both genre writers, but the style and standard of the writing is important to us; mostly we don’t deserve to have the word ‘genre’ applied to us in a condescending or pejorative way (though we have both suffered from this). I don’t deny that there is huge variation in the quality of writing accomplished by both crime writers and cookery writers, but at our best we produce classics. When my friend Sally gave me How to Eat and The Domestic Goddess as a very generous birthday present ten years ago, I was both amazed and entranced by Nigella Lawson’s wonderfully fresh and funny prose style. You may gorge yourself upon her books both literally and metaphorically, delighting in the sensual language and wonderful photographs even as you assemble the ingredients for a luscious cake and anticipate eating it later. The best crime novels are like this, too: each page not to be gobbled down quickly because it gets you a little closer to the denouement, but lingered over and savoured for the pleasure that the words bring of themselves.
Similarly, a well-set-out recipe is like a well-crafted short story. It tells a tale, from the beginning, when there might be a note on some kind of utensil – a springform cake tin, for example, or a coeur à la crème ramekin – to the afterword, which might offer serving suggestions or other tips once the culinary masterpiece has been completed. Conversely, a poorly-conceived recipe, one which perhaps is not clear about quantities or method, disappoints and exasperates just as much as a badly-written thriller. And, whilst I don’t think that it is possible to ‘learn’ writing step-by-step in quite the way in which you follow a recipe, writers can certainly give others pointers to how their writing can be developed – hence the workshop idea. Conversely, an inspired cook will add some special twist or variation to a recipe to make it more delicious and uniquely his or her own.
There is one point on which we will always be at opposite poles, however: cookery-writing is about celebrating life and that which sustains it. Food and the sharing of food is a civilising influence. Almost every great nation has developed its own cuisine. Crime writing, on the other hand, is about what threatens a civilised existence, sometimes including life itself: a sobering thought, yet, as I’ve said before, the end of a crime novel usually brings with it some kind of catharsis and a feeling that all is right with the world again. And along the way, both heroes and villains can enjoy some excellent food. From the Victorian victuals described by Wilkie Collins to DI Banks’ pub lunches and Paola Brunetti’s elegant meals en famille, crime-writing owes a lot to cookery. I’d better not embark upon a consideration of how cookery-writing might be indebted to crime; otherwise my imagination might run riot!