The Lemon Meringue Pie Murder, with its cheery cover, looked like a promising read. A light hearted whodunnit for the young at heart, but for me, it seemed to lack pace. Perhaps I am not so young at heart after all! Despite this, Joanne Fluke, the author of the Hannah Swensen Mysteries has a big following.
To date, she has penned at least a dozen murder mysteries and a recipe book. Her series includes such engaging titles as, the Candy Cane Murder, the Key Lime Pie Murder, the Carrot Cake Murder and the Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder - to name a few.
The Lemon Meringue Pie Murder, which is set at Lake Eden in Minnesota, seems to be written to a formula (nothing wrong with that) but I was hoping for something a little bit funny and a little less contrived. After all, death by lemon meringue pie sounds so absurd it could be a fun read - couldn't it?
The famous main character, is Hannah Swensen - the 20-something co-owner of The Cookie Jar who spends most of her time reluctantly solving murder mysteries.
This amateur sleuth has a 100 per cent success rate and always gets her man (or woman). So imagine my surprise, when we are introduced to her in Chapter One as a coffee drinking, overweight, cat owner, who cannot fit in to her slacks and decides to go on a diet?
I found this underlying theme to her character very distracting, but on reflection, her need for a diet is not surprising considering the huge amounts of sugar and butter in the recipes churned out by The Cookie Jar.
"Come in and have a cookie. I've got Peanut Butter Melts, Apricot Drops and Chocolate Chip Crunchies." p80
(Recipes are supplied at the end of each chapter).
The next three chapters introduce us to the cast and Hannah's two love interests. Norman, her conservative boyfriend and the respectable town dentist; and Mike, the sexy, resourceful county detective who attempts to deter her from getting involved in police business.
It is not until Chapter Five, and many cups of coffee and dieting angst later, that the murder mystery unfolds with the discovery of the town's flirty, beautician Rhonda, who is found dead in Norman's new house.
And with her, a trail of food clues left for Hannah to solve.
"Rhonda's last meal was a piece of your Lemon Meringue Pie...you have to help investigate. It is your duty." p81
The Cookie Jar is used as a prop in this murder mystery (and I suspect this to be the case in other stories in the series). It is merely a vehicle to tell the story, set the scene and plot and provide the backdrop and connections to solve the murders. It has no other food symbolism, or sense of belonging or atmosphere since most of the crime-solving takes place outside The Cookie Jar.
The cookies however, showcase Hannah's creative side and give her an identity and purpose. She also likes to give the cookies away to show her generous spirit, or her manipulative side when she wants information from a suspect.
The continuing trials and tribulations of Hannah's self image and her dietary efforts seemed at odds with being the owner of The Cookie Jar.
These trials and tribulations, hinted at the type of sub conscious food values that may be held by the author (and ourselves). Hannah's struggle with her weight and food choices in this murder mystery is just a microcosm of our affluent world and shows just how pervasive this food philosophy is in popular culture.
The inferences I got from this love/hate relationship with food was largely negative and I wondered at the subliminal message that was being passed on, in an entertaining way, to anxious teenage girls?
On one hand, Hannah is a smart, brave, and highly motivated investigator and her flip side is an anxious, self depreciating dieter who is not satisfied with her looks and thinks the reason she has not been proposed to is because of her perceived weight.
QUESTION: Why are we all trying to be what we think we should be (according to advertisements) rather than who we really are?
In the first chapter we are told,
"As much as the prospect sickened, she would have to limit her intake of food." p11
QUESTION: Why is moderation and temperance presented negatively and gluttony of no consequence in this modern world?
Ten pages later we read,
"Sighing, Hannah placed the cookie back on the plate. She had to (reluctantly) exercise will power." p21
QUESTION: Wouldn't we be all better off if we embraced or re-learned will power?
Further along, Hannah's love/hate attitude to food,
"Visions of endless streams of salads and low-cal dressings danced through Hannah's head."
QUESTION: Why are good food options (salads) seen as a punishment and not a reward?
This angst, revolving around food choice, threads its way through the entire book, chapter by chapter, right down to the last sentence of the book, which meant I couldn't help but question it in the light of my own food values.
"Hannah's dietary resolve waivered dangerously when the waitress wheeled up the dessert cart." p89
QUESTION: Why do we feel guilty if we treat ourselves, and feel self-righteous or victimized if we don't?"
Parallel to this dietary dilemmas is a murder mystery waiting to be solved. Was Rhonda murdered by the jet-setting pilot, a jilted lover, the two-timing school principal, a jealous wife, the tango dancing reverend or the county's helpful handyman duo?
By the end of the story, the killer is caught, Hannah's trousers are loose around the waist (yay) and the diet is broken.
"I'm skipping my salad and entre tonight. Just bring the dessert cart and park it right here." p326
Makes 10 dozen!!
"The new cookies smelled wonderful, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and a secret* ingredient." p216
1/2 cup melted butter
3 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs lightly beaten
1 can condensed tomato soup*
2 tspns cinnamon
2 tspns nutmeg
2 tspns baking powder
2 tspns salt
2 cups raisins
2 cups chopped walnuts
4 1/2 cups of flour
Combine all ingredients until well mixed. Then stir in raisins and nuts. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Drop the dough by teaspoon onto several lined baking trays and bake at 350 degrees for ten minutes or until golden brown.
Note: Halve the mixture for less cookies or make larger cookies or invite a crowd to your place.
Leave 3-finger widths between cookies as they spread slightly. Transfer to wire rack to cool. The cookies will be soft and chewy in texture and you will either love them or hate them. In my household, the camp is divided.
If you don't like the idea of adding condensed tomato soup to your cookie mixture, try the poor man's blintzes recipe below.
Aunty Kitty's Cottage Cheese Pancakes
2 cups cottage cheese
(in keeping with the storyline I used Weight Watchers brand)
1/2 tspn salt
1/2 cup flour
Mix all the ingredients together and allow to rest for one hour. Heat non stick griddle or fry pan and dollop pancake mix in to the pan. I found it easier to use an egg ring as the rings kept the shape and made flipping easier.
*The mix yields 12 pancakes using the egg rings (3 per person).
Once cooked to light golden cover, plate up and serve with jam, fresh fruit or sour cream.
©2011 My Novel Idea Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved