Murder-as-entertainment was never my thing. Having spent a short chapter of my life working on a true-crime television show that resulted in daily calls to my mom to tell her I loved her, I’m not one to rush towards grisly Netflix docs or podcasts about someone’s favorite murders. But one afternoon while waiting in the checkout line at a grocery store, I noticed an ad on the conveyor belt divider for the newest book by Joanne Fluke, a New York Times bestselling author who apparently holds the much-coveted title of “Queen of Culinary Capers.”
The book was called Raspberry Danish Murder, a title that, given my tendency to request the dessert menu at the start of every restaurant meal I partake in, instantly caught my attention. As it turns out, Raspberry Danish Murder, which was released in February of this year, is the 22nd (!) book in an ongoing series surrounding a fictitious bakery owner/detective named Hannah Swensen. Each installment features a new murder for Hannah to solve, along with at least a dozen recipes for baked goods and (an occasional) savory dish, each mentioned somewhere in the story. The most accurate way to describe these books might be “cookbooks with smatterings of fiction woven in” — which is precisely why they’re my favorite guilty-pleasure reading material.
The protagonist, Hannah, is a red-headed 20- or 30-something (depending on how far along in the series you are) living in the fictional small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. She lives with her giant orange cat, Moishe, is very close with her mother and sisters, and, despite being an innocent bakery owner, manages to find herself entangled in multiple murders each calendar year. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly macabre elements — they’re about as scary as Dr. Seuss stories, complete with a small-town setting that adds a dose of provincial charm. Hannah knows everyone in town by name (in addition to their favorite sweet treat), and her bakery, the Cookie Jar, acts as a community meeting place for Lake Eden’s locals. Murder might be what excites the town, but Swensen’s desserts are what unite it.
The Hannah Swensen series belongs to the “cozy mysteries” genre, books that downplay the graphic violence or overt noir often found in other mysteries. “The heart of why readers love cozies is they know what they are getting,” mystery writer Amanda Flower wrote in Publisher’s Weekly earlier this year. “The cozy lesson is an average person can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a knitter, a librarian, or a gardener — that person can solve a murder.” (The genre also extends beyond books — Hallmark produced five made-for-television films based on Fluke’s series, with former soap star and The Biggest Loser host Alison Sweeney starring as Hannah.) Part of the appeal of the pastry murder mystery series is the element of reader interaction: Clues surrounding the murders are scattered throughout, a la Encyclopedia Brown. Plus, there’s no need to get sad when someone gets killed off because they were likely a minor character with an offensive personality trait. In fact, the prospect of Hannah burning her cookies stresses me out more than the criminal activity itself.
Hannah’s desserts, of course, are actually Fluke’s recipes, which, as she told the New York Times in 2017, come from her own kitchen experiments, her family’s recipe books, and from fans. The featured recipes often have nothing to do with the actual plot line of a book — for instance, a quick reference to deep-fried candy bars made during a visit to the county fair in Key Lime Pie Murder warrants the inclusion of “Ruby’s Deep-Fried Candy Bars” in the recipe index. (That said, some of the more recent books can have as many as 20 recipes, so I can appreciate the impossibility of each one being a critical story device.) And though I haven’t yet tried my hand at any of them, they have quite a healthy digital presence — they’re featured on literary food blogs like Mysterious Eats and appear on dedicated Pinterest boards.
From a reader’s (if not a cook’s) perspective, I’m a sucker for the little modifications or suggestions the “characters” (via Fluke) insert into their recipes — some are courtesy of Hannah, and others from supporting characters in the story. The secondary character notes get thrillingly specific: In the recipe for a fruit pastry from one of Hannah’s employees, Lisa, Fluke writes: “Since pineapple is Herb’s favorite fruit, I’m going to try it with pineapple jam next, if Florence can order it at the Red Owl. I’m pretty sure that Smucker’s makes it.” Herb is Lisa’s boyfriend, and the Red Owl is the town grocery store. How can you not admire such commitment to fictitious world-creation?
It should go without saying, but these books are not literary masterpieces. Fluke jumps at any opportunity to drop a food reference: Hannah’s truck is described as “candy apple red,” and she wears sweaters emblazoned with phrases like, “Got Cookies?” Almost every character Hannah encounters, as minor as they may be, reveals a specific relationship to food; we learn that Reverend Bob Knudson has a soft spot for Red Devil’s Food Cake (haha), while Herb Beeseman, the town marshal, is partial to Hannah’s Molasses Crackles. Even Moishe can’t escape food comparisons: “Once his whole body was stretched taut, he began to quiver like the proverbial bowl full of Jell-O.”
For the blood and guts-averse like me, it’s a blessing that the writing is straightforward and avoids gory details. Aside from (maybe) Hannah, there’s no risk of attachment to characters. Even the “good” characters are written with as much depth as a kiddie pool. Frustratingly, our heroine tends to put herself down for superficial, sexist reasons; i.e. her weight and fears of becoming a “spinster” at 30 (eye roll), though she ultimately shrugs off her insecurities in favor of consuming the baked goods she holds so dear. The food always wins in the end, which makes it marginally more tolerable, but Joanne, let’s cut this archaic nonsense moving forward, yeah?
That said, food is unquestionably the main character — the people are simply the vessels through which it’s presented and served to the reader. I find the often clunky, contrived food references to be one of the series’ most endearing qualities. “Their bakery and coffee shop, the Cookie Jar, was as empty as one of Hannah’s cream puffs before it was filled with vanilla custard,” Fluke writes in Peach Cobbler Murder. How much more delightful would life be if we started speaking in pastry-centric similes? And that’s to say nothing of the quirky wordplay, which Fluke uses to comedic effect just in case the docile nature of the books wasn’t obvious enough. In fact, puns abound throughout the cozy mystery genre at large, as evidenced by titles like: Till Death Do Us Tart; Another One Bites The Crust; Butter Safe Than Sorry: A Pennsylvania Dutch Mystery; and one that speaks to recent trends called Purrder She Wrote: A Cat Cafe Mystery.
The true beauty of these stories lies within their celebrations of pastry and sugar and excess, which is so enjoyable to read about because our own daily routines don’t typically include consuming four slices of carrot cake for breakfast. It’s harmless voyeurism at its best, too, because while the confection-laced content is entirely imaginary, it’s also entirely relatable and enviable for sugar fiends like me. With all of the rules, disappointments, and curveballs daily life throws at us, it’s comforting to escape to a world where even muffins outshine murders — and the answer to “whodunit” can be solved, easily, by a baker who just happens to be an accidental gumshoe.