Now that I’m working out at the gym three times per week, I need a steady stream of new audiobooks on my iPod to keep me entertained during each two-hour session. Of course, there’s no way I could afford to purchase all of the audiobooks I go through, so I pretty much settle for what my local library has on its shelves — which is how I discovered the Hannah Swensen mystery series from Joanne Fluke.
Hannah Swensen books fall into the “cozy mystery” category, meaning that they’re light reads that will never be confused with hardcore detective fare. I found the first entry in the series, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, to be a bit disappointing on the whole, yet entertaining enough to make me want to continue with the second. This time, Strawberry Shortcake Murder was a much better book from start to finish — yet still not something I’d readily recommend to friends looking for a good read.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The president of the Hartland Flour company has chosen Lake Eden, MN as the site of its annual Dessert Bake-Off, a big honor for the small town. Everyone is excited about the Bake-Off, as it means additional money and exposure for those involved, including Hannah Swensen, owner of The Cookie Jar, one of Lake Eden’s most popular eateries. Hannah has been asked to serve as the head judge of the bake-off, an honorary position that gives her the chance to show off her own baking skills and promote The Cookie Jar on the local news every night of the competition.
The excitement quickly turns to fear and apprehension, however, as Lake Eden High School basketball coach (and replacement Bake-Off judge) Boyd Watson is found brutally murdered in his own garage one night. His head had been bashed in with a ball peen hammer, leaving the local sheriff deputies without any real clues to go on. To make matters worse, the best suspect in the murder is Boyd’s wife Danielle, a victim of domestic violence. When Detective Mike Kingston tells Hannah this, the amateur sleuth decides to do what she can to clear her friend’s name.
The rest of the novel then deals with Hannah’s somewhat less-than-methodical investigation of the case. As with the first book of the series, the investigation consists of little more than good old-fashioned snooping and questioning, though this time Hannah doesn’t have the backing of brother-in-law Bill to lend her involvement any weight. This leads to some extreme (for Hannah) measures, including breaking-and-entering and theft.
There are a few plot twists along the way as Hannah follows through on all suspects and leads, and, as with the first book, Hannah ends up in a face-to-face showdown with the killer. She comes out on top, of course, in an ending that was at least satisfying (if not wholly believable).
My Reaction: I found Strawberry Shortcake Murder to be an extremely fast read (listen). It was surprisingly engrossing considering the fact that it’s a cozy mystery, and I’m actually becoming quite fond of the Hannah Swensen character. There were still several things that bugged, however, and I need to vent about those problems here.
First of all, I absolutely can’t stand the way Fluke writes the four-year-old niece Tracey. Fluke has the child using complex sentences and vocabulary words that would sound strange coming from a kid twice her age, and it’s really, really distracting. I cringed whenever Tracey had any dialogue because it was just so unrealistic that it took me right out of the story.
Second, I didn’t like the way Fluke tried to build up suspense regarding Lucy’s disappearance. As soon as the author mentioned that Lucy missed her photo shoot and hadn’t been seen by anyone all day, I knew that something bad had happened to her. Hannah and Andrea, however, seemed blissfully clueless that anything was amiss, which was not a very likely scenario given the situation and the fact that they knew Lucy had probably tried to blackmail the killer. It was completely unbelievable that Hannah and Andrea would simply dismiss Lucy’s extended absence as nothing to worry about.
And finally, some of the small details bothered me as well. For instance, when Hannah and Andrea broke into Lucy’s apartment to search for her blackmail stash, why oh WHY would they check the oven, refrigerator, freezer, and toilet tank before examining Lucy’s desk??? Wouldn’t the desk be the logical place to start, especially since Lucy had no reason to suspect that anyone was actively looking for the evidence? Give me a break!
Besides these minor annoyances, Strawberry Shortcake Murder was fairly entertaining. As I said, I’m starting to like the Hannah character a lot, and several of the minor characters are interesting as well. Since my library has the entire Joanne Fluke collection available on CDs, I think I’m going to continue listening to the series. The books are fun, fast, and don’t require my full attention, making them a great workout companion!