Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now and Where the Bones Are Buried will be out in January 2015. You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
When you’ve portrayed your series sleuth as slim, lissome, and unconcerned about keeping her figure, you’re taking a chance when you send her to Berlin. She would have to be a model of self-restraint if she didn’t put on a few pounds. I felt as if I gained weight just browsing the extravagant array of food on display in the Delicatessen of the Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe for short. With 60,000 square meters of floor space, it is the city’s – and Europe’s – largest department store, and its sixth and seventh floors are devoted exclusively to food. Shoppers stroll the equivalent of two football fields, salivating as they try to decide among 400 varieties of bread, 1,200 kinds of bacon, sausages and ham, and 1,300 different cheeses. And when I think of the spectacular cakes and confections lined up behind the dessert counters, I could swoon. Perhaps I was thinking too fondly and too often of the caramel cream cake or the Brandenburg cookies, but my fictional alter ego went on a bit of an eating binge in Where the Bones Are Buried.
As usual, Dinah has a banquet of worries to contend with in Berlin. For starters, her Native American mother shows up out of the blue with a cockamamie scheme to blackmail a German tax dodger. Not only is it dangerous and illegal, but her shenanigans threaten to dredge up a guilty secret that Dinah has kept hidden from the IRS and from her straight-arrow boyfriend Thor. As if this weren’t upsetting enough, her mother has arranged a rendezvous with a make-believe Indian she met on Facebook. While Dinah scrambles to head off her mother, more aggro arrives in the person of a shirttail niece intent on turning Dinah’s romantic love nest into a home for teenage delinquents. To put the cherry on this sundae of woes, a man is murdered and scalped and her mother becomes the prime suspect. Stress makes Dinah hungry and the more she eats, the hungrier she gets. Her neighbor gives her the perfect word for what ails her. “When you feel trouble in your gut,” he tells her, “it is like hunger. In German, we call it Kummerspeck. Grief bacon.”
Sitting in the cafés of an afternoon, watching Berliners bent over huge strudels mounded high with whipped cream, or dense chocolate tortes with raspberry-cream filling, one might suppose they were all afflicted with grief bacon. I think it’s more an attitude of guiltless self-indulgence that we Americans have lost. Driven as we are by the quest for good health and the virtue of self-control, we tend to regard a mid-day brownie tiramisù oozing with molten chocolate as a moral failure, something to be repented with a strict regimen of exercise and fasting. Not so the Berliners I encountered.
They’re not blasé. They recognize that obesity is a serious issue in Germany, as it is in much of the West. But I didn’t notice an excess of portliness in Berlin. Maybe it’s because they walk and bicycle more than other people, or because they nibble only lettuce leaves and celery stalks when eating at home. Or maybe it’s because they smoke like factory stacks and the nicotine kills their appetite. Americans returning from Berlin must marvel at Berliners’ continuing love affair with tobacco. Cigarettes are heavily taxed and smoking is prohibited indoors in public places, but the streets reek.
I came home wondering if the city’s turbulent history might have instilled in its citizens a disdain for danger and risk – a fatalistic attitude that life is unpredictable and death is inevitable whether or not they mind their cholesterol and carcinogens. After the carnage of WWI; after the hunger and deprivation suffered in the aftermath; after the Nazi nightmare and the guilt and a second disastrous World War; after the near-annihilation of the city by Allied bombs; after the Berlin Wall – who’s afraid of a little pastry?
By the end of Chapter 8, Dinah has gained five pounds. They are fictional pounds, but I can’t have a character craving chocolate-frosted Törtchen and jelly-filled Pfannkuchen all the time with no repercussions. I’d get letters from the plausibility police. On the other hand, I can’t let the franchise character on which the series is based make a complete pig of herself. Did I not give her enough willpower? Did I not give her the metabolism of a hummingbird?
They say that sometimes a character slips out from under the author’s control and goes her own way. I can’t say of Dinah, as Archie Goodwin said of Nero Wolfe, that she weighs “a seventh of a ton” at the end of this book. But Berlin is no place to come down with a case of grief bacon. There was this dark chocolate upside-down cake topped with a decadent drizzle of strawberry coulis . . .