The Sharpest Knives in the Drawer


  • Bill Phillips Universitat de Barcelona (UB)



detective fiction, cookery, gender


Cooking is a gender marker. Just as the best chefs in the world are traditionally men, post-hard-boiled literary detectives such as Vázquez Montalban’s Carvalho, or Robert B. Parker’s Spenser are gourmet cooks, while George Pelecanos’s sleuthing protagonists were as often as not brought up in short order Greek diners and know their way around a kitchen. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is quite capable of putting together a nutritious meal for his family, as is James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. Sadly, in confirmation of the gender divide, the same cannot be said for women detectives. While Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will reluctantly and with much griping put a simple meal on the table if absolutely forced to, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlyle would not be seen dead slaving over a hot stove and subsist mainly on takeaway pizzas and hamburgers. Indeed, Kinsey Millhone would probably have died of malnutrition halfway through the alphabet if it were not for her neighbour, Henry, a retired baker, who regularly supplies her with decent home-cooked meals.

Authors such as Vázquez Montalban and Robert B. Parker delight in providing recipes for their readers which are lovingly put together by their protagonists (especially in Spenser’s case whose culinary prowess is consistently contrasted to his girlfriend’s utter inability even to slice an onion), or by their male friends. In 1999 Vázquez Montalban published Las recetas de Carvalho which achieved such popularity it was reissued in 2004 by Planeta. It is not known whether any women detectives or their authors might claim as much.

Clearly something is afoot. The sharpest knives in the detectives’ kitchen drawers are wielded by men, their traditional solitary nature ensuring the broth remains unspoiled and the villains well grilled. Overcompensation for gender stereotyping by both sides would seem an easy, half-baked explanation. Is it really that simple?