In Funeral Hotdish, the latest from Arizona based journalist Jana Bommersbach, the author demonstrates that she is as adept with the mystery genre as she was with the historical Western in her 2014 novel Cattle Kate.
The narrative begins when the book’s central character, Joya Bonner, an investigative reporter for an alternative Phoenix newspaper recognizes Mafia gangster and stoolie, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, supposedly in witness protection lording it up in a local coffee house. Turns out that unbeknownst to the Feds, the mobster is running a national drug operation and is the subject of an undercover investigation by the Phoenix police. Bonner, who is in a relationship with a cop who just happens to be involved in the investigation manages to talk herself into an exclusive on the story if she keeps quiet about it until all the evidence is gathered.
Things get more complicated when a popular young high school coed from Bonner’s tiny North Dakota hometown dies after taking Ecstasy at a dance. A stereotypical small town, Northville is not the kind of place such things are the norm, so her death has the town’s people up in arms. Among some of the men there is a lot of talk about dealing with the problem themselves when they are unsatisfied with the local sheriff’s response.
Bommersbach’s story follows two tracks: the Phoenix undercover operation against Gravano and the Northville community’s response to the drug death. The first, she points out, is based on events that actually took place; the second is her own invention. Both are narrated in the kind of realistic detail that lends the material the feeling of authority. Whether she is describing the rules for the release of police documents or the arrangements for the church dinner after a funeral, she writes with the confidence that comes when an author knows what she is talking about.
She is especially good at dealing with the denizens of Northville. These are not only people she knows, they are people she likes. But they are not idealized. They are people with all the flaws of people everywhere. Small town people can be just as self-righteous and morally challenged as their big city cousins. This is no romantic vision of small town America. It is a realistic portrait that takes small town life—warts and all—seriously.
Finally, the title: if like me, it means absolutely nothing to you, you will be happy to learn that “funeral hotdish” is the name given to the main meat course served at those Northville church dinners after a funeral. Indeed, Bommersbach includes a recipe for the dish in her notes at the end of the novel.