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'Hotdish' shoots lighthearted barbs at Northland

When Pat Dennis sent "Hotdish to Die For" in for review, the cover letter had me laughing -- honest, full-throated laughing. So I had high hopes for the book, which is a collection of humorous short mysteries that all involve a hotdish in one way...

When Pat Dennis sent "Hotdish to Die For" in for review, the cover letter had me laughing -- honest, full-throated laughing. So I had high hopes for the book, which is a collection of humorous short mysteries that all involve a hotdish in one way or another. If the cover letter was that funny, how could you miss on a premise like hotdishes?
(One other thing about the letter that strikes me funny is that, while Dennis joked about a well-published friend who suggested sending various kinds of graft to reviewers, apparently her friend didn't suggest being accurate in the book about the very publication you are submitting to. Award-winning newspapers seldom relish being classified as "shoppers." So it goes.)
On opening the book, the laughing continued. The book starts with an "unofficial guide" to hotdish mysteries and includes definitions for "hot," "dish," "hotdish" and "hotdish mystery." Under "hotdish," we have the following definitions: "1. Midwestern colloquialism for a hot entree that is similar to a French casserole except that it is often inedible; 2. the b------ offspring of canned cream of mushroom soup."
The rest of the introduction is similarly loaded with jokes, taken from Dennis' personal "food issues" and her wry observations on local cuisine.
From there, Dennis presents the bulk of the book: six "hotdish mysteries" that have villains drugging their hotdishes and pushing victims off of boats, blasting would-be killers with spud guns and loading hotdishes with gunpowder so that they explode upon microwaving.
It's culinary mayhem.
Carrying the theme a step further, in "The Maltese Tater Tot," the private detective's worried client runs his own hotdish restaurant. Which, if you think about it, really isn't a bad concept for a restaurant in these parts.
There are laughs in these stories, but I've got to say they don't come quite as fast and furious as they do in the short snippets of nonfiction I've seen from Dennis.
Some humor highlights: "The Elder Hostile" is really funny, and I suspect it's no coincidence that many of the jokes come from the mouth and pen of main character JP England, who is a newspaper columnist.
The self-important "reading group" women, main characters in the title story, "Hotdish to Die For" (based in Duluth) are a gas, and the ending is classic.
"The Lutheran Who Lusted" has a great, over-the-top lead character, the classic unreliable narrator who becomes funny in her bizarre murder attempt. Funny unless you're sensitive about bipolar disorder.
And as you can see, the titles are pretty funny, too.
Others stories have little humor at all. In "Cabin Fever," none of the characters is very likable; in fact, the two main ones are quite ugly in their conduct, which makes them tough to laugh at or with. Mostly, you root for the cabin and the lake.
In "Death by Idaho," the bad guy is the point-of-view character, and we enjoy a few laughs at his stupidity and shallowness, but we don't know enough about his poor wife to really root for her in the end, either, although the action-packed climax is a funny surprise.
As mysteries, they run the gamut, from tight, well-conceived stories to those with major plot holes. All of the stories have strong beginnings, and most importantly, ends. There are some nice surprises.
But in some cases, the actions of the characters don't make sense to me: some of JP's detective work in "The Elder Hostile," for instance, leaves a bit to be desired.
At the end of the book, Dennis has a slew of hotdish recipes. Since none are vegan, I can't say that I've tried any of them out, but your mileage may vary.
I can see this book having wide appeal in the Northland. Although it's not perfect, and from what I've seen, Dennis is funnier in nonfiction than in fiction, I enjoyed reading these stories and got some laughs out of them. And I know many people I think would enjoy them even more.
Do you enjoy a good story and an edible hotdish? Do you like lighthearted pokes at church potlucks, ministers' wives and the Twin Cites pilgrims who pay homage at cabins on north country lakes? If so, you'll like this book. Even if Dennis doesn't know the difference between a newspaper and a shopper.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer book reviewer. Submit your books for review to him in care of the Budgeteer News, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth, Minn. 55802. To talk books, call him at (218) 723-1207 or send
e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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