New York City – I was given advice by someone who supposedly knows about such things. So I took it. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel that has a lot of food and wine in it, but is something in the vein of a thriller, or murder mystery, or crime sort of thingy. You can see it’s not a well formed idea. But her suggestion was that I start by reading some of the “better” food related murder mysteries out there. She gave me a list of three authors, and I picked up the first book in each of their series. I’ve just finished the first one, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke.
Now, I don’t know Ms. Fluke, though according to the inside cover of the book she was born and raised in a small town in rural Minnesota and now live in Southern California. Various critics expressed such things as perfect comfort read and cleverly-plotted cozy and hard to put down. I’m not entirely clear what a comfort read or a cozy is. I do know that I put the book down. Repeatedly.
To summarize the plot, as best I can determine it… The owner of a cookie store finds the dead body of a friend behind the store. Her brother-in-law, a budding detective on the local small town police force, for unknown reasons, enlists her help as an unofficial investigator. She then proceeds to nose about into the business of anyone connected with the dead man (and a few who aren’t and appear in the book for no apparent reason); one after another, on the flimsiest of evidence, not only assuming that they are each in turn guilty, but bluntly proceeds to accuse them of being guilty. Brother-in-law soon to be promoted seems to spend virtually the entire time sitting in his office catching up on paperwork but not answering his phone. In the end, she uncovers the murderer, not through investigation (as one by one the “clues” that she finds end up having nothing to do with the crime), but because the murderer confesses to her out of the blue while she’s busy accusing someone else of the crime. Brother-in-law arrives in time to put the cuffs on the perpetrator and take the credit.
Beyond the bumbling plot and unnecessary characters, the writing and dialogue seems to be aimed at someone with an IQ equal to the number of chapters in the book (26). Random narrative explicates character facets and background, and local “color,” presumably intended to flesh out the book and create some sort of sense of being there. Instead it does little more than confuse and obscure what there is of a plot. The next book in the series is the Strawberry Shortcake Murder (apparently she expands her cookie business). I somehow doubt I’ll be reading it.
Some additional notes… the book contains quite a few cookie recipes, I didn’t try them out, they sounded good. There is, however, a peculiar scene near the beginning of the book that describes the cookie store owner making coffee for her store. She puts the ground coffee in a bowl, crushes a whole egg or two, shell and all, into it, and adds salt. Then she puts the whole mess into a paper coffee filter and brews the coffee. Someone didn’t do her research, or I’m misreading this passage. I had a vague recollection of this process, but not for filtered coffee. Sure enough, the method is used to brew coffee that uses boiling water – traditionally, where the whole mess is thrown in a pot of boiling water, brewed, and then allowed to settle. Think more or less like clarifying a stock – the whole egg is boiled with everything, it draws the proteins and “trash” to it, and then can be skimmed off or settles out. You might get away with it in a percolator or “vesuvio” type pot (the modern version being a Chemex hourglass pot), where the water is brought to a boil, but even that’d be questionable. The whole idea of the process is to boil the egg with the grounds, not to just pass boiling water through the egg and grounds. It was a method of filtration… if you’re already using a filter, it’s unnecessary. And, in a modern drip coffee maker, the water isn’t hot enough to even coagulate the egg. The salt, by the way, isn’t unusual, and a pinch of salt in with your coffee grounds will help smooth out the bitterness, if you prefer your coffee smoother.