Cheeseburger in Paradise*

You may know the feeling. You’re on a road trip somewhere, and you want some food. You don’t want a full sit-down meal, and perhaps you want to get back on the road. Or, maybe you’re picking the kids up from rehearsal, or football, or music lessons, and they’re complaining of ‘starving.’ You don’t have time to cook (and you don’t feel like it, anyway). What do you do? For many people, the answer is fast food. And since 1955, McDonald’s has become synonymous with fast food. What started out as one restaurant has morphed into a worldwide corporation with outlets in 100 countries. Fast food has become big, big business.

Of course, it’s not just McDonald’s, although that company is quite the heavy hitter. Many countries (even regions) have their own fast food places, and it’s not surprising. Places like that are convenient, don’t tend to be expensive, and have at least something that most people will eat. With fast food being such a part of modern people’s lives, it’s not surprising that we see it in crime fiction.

For example, in one plot thread of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we meet Ruthanne Hendry, a children’s book author who’s settled with her husband, Royal, and their children in the small Connecticut town of Stepford. At first, she wonders how they’ll fit in, since the family is Black (the book was published in 1972). But she eventually starts to feel more comfortable. One of the people she meets is Joanna Eberhart, a photographer who moved to Stepford with her own family a few months earlier. She and Joanna strike up an acquaintanceship, and that’s why Ruthanne is unsettled by a chance encounter she has with Joanna late in the book. What she doesn’t know (and what Joanna didn’t know either at first) is that Stepford is hiding some dark secrets. Although that chance meeting makes Ruthanne a bit uncomfortable, she tries to get back to work on her new book. Here’s what she says to Royal:

‘Listen, would you do me a favor? Now that it’s moving I want to stay with it.’
‘Supper?’ he said.

She nodded. ‘Would you take them to the pizza place? Or to McDonalds?’

If you’ve read the novel, it’s not hard to speculate on what may happen next…

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces Melbourne-based PI and sometime-lawyer Jack Irish. He’s drawn into a case of murder when a former client, Danny McKillop, asks to meet with him. Irish feels a special debt in this case because he completely botched McKillop’s case and that landed his client in prison. He never gets to hear what McKillop wanted to say, though, because the man is shot before they can meet. Mostly out of a sense of obligation, Irish starts asking questions and trying to find out what happened to the victim. In one plot thread of the novel, he goes along with some friends to the horse races, where some perhaps-not-entirely-legal betting is going on. Along the way, the group stops at a McDonald’s:

‘On Harry’s orders, we stopped at McDonald’s. Harry ordered two Big Macs…
‘Now, that’s what I call food,’ Harry said. ‘Not a word to the wife. She reckons you eat the stuff, you end up needin’ one of them coronary overpasses or something.’

The health risks don’t keep the group from enjoying the stop.

Of course, it’s not just McDonald’s. There are many, many fast-food places. Canada’s largest fast-food restaurant company is Tim Hortons. There are outlets in many places in that country, and several outlets in other places, too. Tim’s makes appearances in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Mike Martin’s The Walker on the Cape, we are introduced to RCMP Sergeant Winston Windflower. He’s recently relocated to Grand Bank, Newfoundland, and has gotten settled in. Then, the body of Elias Martin is discovered on the path he uses for his daily walk. At first, it looks like the man had a fatal heart attack. But autopsy results show he died of arsenic poisoning. Now, Windflower and his team have to find out who killed the man and why. For that, they’ll need to go back to the past and untangle several complex relationships. And more than once, we see how popular a stop Tim’s is:

‘Wanna grab a coffee at Timmy’s?’ Ford asked when they’d finished their lunch.
‘Sure,’ said Windflower. ‘That would be great.’
At the Tim Hortons, a steady parade of RCMP officers nodded or winked to Ford and Windflower. This was as close as you could get in Marytown to the Mounties’ hangout.’

Windflower gets the job done, thanks in part to plenty of refueling at Tim’s.

Cat Connor’s Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Tracey is an Upper Hutt-based PI who’s recently started building up her business. She’s a former member of New Zealand Intelligence, so she’s got connections in law enforcement. As she and her team don’t keep regular hours, she doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time cooking. And she’s not interested in becoming a gourmet chef, anyway. Still, she and her team have to eat. And sometimes, what they choose is fast food. In [Leave a Message], for instance, Ronnie, her sometimes-partner Ben Reynolds, and a colleague, Dave Crocker, get involved in the disappearance of a New Zealand Army Intelligence officer. The case has links to some dangerous people, and the team has only a short time to get the job done. At one point, though, hunger wins out:

‘Breakfast?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ Ben replied. ‘What time is it?’
‘Nearly lunchtime….
‘McDonalds it is then,’ Ben said. ‘Drive thru in Silverstream, here we come.’
My stomach growled. ‘I think two Big Mac’s and fries will do the job.’

And that’s by no means the only time they go the fast-food route…

But that’s the thing. Fast food is convenient, it’s usually not very expensive, and even if it isn’t particularly delicious, it meets some important consumer demands. Little wonder the industry has grown as it has. Which fictional fast-foodies have stayed with you? I see you, fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone…

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jimmy Buffett