It Is, and Isn’t, a Fluke

I just finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which won the Booker Prize last year. It is a remarkable book, set in Glasgow a generation ago, but it is a hard read. The book centers on a family whose members all love in their own ways, but, because of the society in which they are trapped and the damage that has been inflicted upon them, they do harmful things to themselves and to each other. Stuart does not spare us the pain, but he also produces a book with so much human emotion that I simultaneously wanted to set it down because it is so sad and rush to the end because it is so compelling.  

When I returned the book to the library, I looked for something a bit lighter. I pulled out of the “New Mystery” section Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder. I was not familiar with the book or the series of which it is a part (“A Hannah Swenson Mystery with Recipes”) nor its author, Joanne Fluke, but I thought the title promised a pleasant read.

When I got it home, I noticed a blurb on the back that labeled Fluke “the queen of culinary cozies.” I often place the many mysteries I have read into different categories, such as a drawing-room mystery, or dark ones featuring  Scandinavian serial killers, or the sins-of-the-fathers mysteries as in Ross MacDonalds, or a literary mystery such as Dorothy Sayers or Tana French, but I have not known that there were “official” mystery genres, and I had certainly never heard of a “culinary cozy.” So I googled (or safaried or binged, I don’t remember which) and learned that this is an entire category of books presenting a foodie detective—a baker, cook, chef, gourmand—along with many mentions of food and accompanying recipes. Puns and food references sprinkle the titles.  

then looked up Joanne Fluke, which turns out to be a pseudonym for Joanne Gibson Fischmann, who also writes young adult thrillers and romances under other pen names. She has published about fifty books of which thirty or so are in the Hannah Swenson series. Since I have cooked or baked for much of my life, enjoy reading recipes, and often pass the time with a mystery, I thought that this accomplished author’s Triple Chocolate should be a good way to perk me up after Shuggie Bain.

And it was. The recipes were primarily for sweet baked goods, and they sounded delicious, but I am unlikely to make them. I know that my cardiologist would severely chastise me if he knew I was eating them. I apparently would need to buy Costco-sized drums of cream cheese, gallons of cream, and a whole lot of salted butter. (I was taught to use unsalted butter and add my desired amount of salt.) And for the non-pastry dishes, I would have to invest heavily in cans of condensed cream soups and buckets of shredded cheeses.

The writing style did not tax my reading powers. Few things were mentioned only once. Information was repeated often a page or two later and then again in a dozen more page and the prose, including the dialog, was stilted, which I would have edited. (An example: Mike had asked for another piece of pie. “Hannah smiled. If there had been any doubt that Mike liked her pie, it was certainly erased now. He’d already had two pieces and now he wanted another. ‘How about some Chocolate Hazelnut Toast Cookies instead? I just made them this afternoon and they’re great with coffee.’”) (Another example: Norman has just said that he wants to make a Boursin omelet. “‘With that marvelous cheese I love?’ ‘That’s right. I chopped up some shallots and I thought I’d make both of us three-egg omelets.’ ‘Perfect!’ Hannah said quickly, smiling at him. ‘I’d love that, Norman. I haven’t had an omelet in a long time and it sounds great! I don’t think I have ever had one with Boursin cheese and shallots inside.’”)

Although it is not billed that way, I felt as if this book was aimed for those in junior high school. Not surprisingly, the apparent homicide was resolved with everyone happy—the bludgeoned dead guy was a bad person and it was so clearly self-defense that the killer was not even charged.

I don’t know if this writing style is the same for all culinary cozies, but I am unlikely to read more to find out. Nevertheless, the repetitive, unnatural prose reminds me of another genre which, to my surprise, I have picked up more than once–Amish romances. My Poconos home is not in Pennsylvania Dutch country, but there is a weekly Amish farmers’ market. Through the years I have chatted with a few of the Amish and learned a little bit about them. However, upon a visit to Sarasota, Florida, I saw a boy and girl walking near the waterfront in what I took to be Amish garb. Then in various parts of town, I saw several men with beards and suspenders and women in long dresses and distinctive head coverings that signaled Amish. In driving around town, a mile or two from the Gulf, I found an enclave of modest houses on narrow streets with families in Amish attire getting around on three-wheel bikes.

When I asked about this, people told me that there was an Amish settlement in Sarasota. (It could have been old world Mennonites, but who can tell the difference?) They were driven down each winter in big buses and stayed until it was planting time up north. The town had several Amish restaurants, and they had good food, but the pie was always especially outstanding.

When I went to one of the restaurants, I stopped in the gift shop on the way out. I found a rack of paperbacks, many of which had a heavily clothed, attractive young woman on the cover. I read the back cover of one and found that it was a romance about some Amish young people. I enjoyed reading it mostly because I felt as if I was learning some about the Amish. For example, each congregation has different rules; some but not all could have a telephone booth on the property but not in the house. Also, Amish and Mennonite women can be distinguished by the style of head coverings, but I no longer remember the distinctions. The prose, like that in the culinary cozy, was repetitive and simple, and I assumed that this was necessary for Amish readers who had not received much formal education. The stories were pleasant with love winning out without clothes being shed. I read a few more of the Amish romances, and I thought I would ask the Amish at the Pennsylvania market if they wanted the books, but every time I went to buy corn, tomatoes, and watermelons, I forgot to bring them.

Now I am glad that I failed in what I thought were good intentions. I had noticed that the authors of the Amish romances I read were not Amish, although the women (all the books I read were written by women) claimed to have Amish friends who helped them understand the Amish culture. I did a bit of research which informed me that the authors of Amish romances are almost always evangelical Christians, and that the Amish are mystified by these romances partly because the books often misrepresent Amish theology.

I learned also that this genre (some call the genre “Bonnet Rippers”) has hundreds of titles. While the Amish do not buy these books, somebody does. One source said that the top three writers of Amish romances have sold over 24 million books (!).

And yet again, I wonder if I made wrong career choices.