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Suspend your disbelief and book a nice read

Cream Puff Murder
Cream Puff Murder
By Joanne Fluke

Kensington: 2009

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This review first appeared in the March 15, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

Author Joanne Fluke has a couple of real strengths with her popular "Mystery With Recipes" series: a likable protagonist in Hannah Swenson and real-life dessert recipes sprinkled throughout the book that come from Hannah's job running a bakery (when she's not solving murders).

All that, though, is undermined in the latest entry by stiff dialogue, a huge surplus of characters, and a too-high requirement for suspension of disbelief on a reader's part.

To that last point: The mythical Lake Eden, Minn., is the book's setting – and it's just as charming and two-dimensional a small town as Cabot Cove on TV's "Murder She Wrote." And just as full of dead bodies, too. (I mean, who in their right mind living in Cabot Cove would have invited Jessica to any kind of social event? You were just asking for one of your guests to get whacked.) This is the 11th book in the series, which means 11 murders in a small town in a decade?

And it seems that every one of the few thousand people living in Lake Eden makes at least a cursory appearance in "Cream Puff Murder" – you almost need a score card or program to remember who is who here.

The story also takes a long time to get going – the novel is more than a third gone before the body turns up.

But what holds back the fun of this mystery the most is the wooden dialogue. Everybody speaks with the same voice: Hannah; her bakery partner, Lisa; her sisters; her slightly-sleazy boyfriend the cop; her nice-guy would-be boyfriend the dentist. It's like reading an old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery where everyone has the same meter and rhythm to their speech.

Still, in spite of all that kvetching, the story itself is comforting in a murder-mystery sort of way. Hannah and her girlfriends are likable people, salt of the earth Midwestern types – not so different from Jessica and her crew on "Murder She Wrote."

The mystery itself isn't so mysterious, but it moves along nicely enough – and once you accept the premise of a bakery owner solving the seemingly regular string of murders in this otherwise pleasant small town, it all makes a certain kind of sense.