Last night, I dipped into the world of the ultra-cheap read in the form of the 99¢ novella, The Cheesehead Shuffle, by T. S. Ellinghausen. It was just the right length for the amount of time I had between the end of the work day and bedtime. Mostly, I couldn’t resist the cover: I am a sucker for cows in costume.
Sub-titled as “A Quirky Midwestern Mystery”, it generally achieves what it claims. I would, however, hesitate to call the book a “mystery”. It starts with a murder but the continuing story doesn’t focus on solving the crime.
The storyline instead veers off to follow Abel Walker, a local lay-about, who goes off the rails after hearing about the murder over breakfast. He is convinced his overdue loan to the deceased loan shark and his (still living) partner will mark him as a potential suspect. Although Abel had nothing to do with the killing, he is sure he will lose his way-too-good-for-him girlfriend, Sunny, if she learns of his gambling debt during the investigation. Abel cooks up a plot to prevent the problem by stealing enough money to pay off the loan and thereby remove suspicion while simultaneously framing his lodge’s rivals for the theft.
After abandoning the ever-forgiving Sunny in the middle of nowhere with a total stranger while he pursues his plan, Abel moves quickly from one bad decision to another to another. Sunny has no choice but to get to know the stranger, Ben, who later ends up joining the search when Sunny goes looking for her missing boyfriend.
Despite being somewhat off to the side of a true “mystery” novel, it is quirky, and it is Midwestern, and the tale is precipitated by an unsolved murder. It then goes on to add (among other things) assault, breaking and entering, kidnapping, and driving with obscured vision. With so much going on, it didn’t need to be a mystery in the conventional sense to keep my attention. The story flowed well, and I was motivated to keep reading through to the end. I even sacrificed a bit of my precious sleep time to finish it in one sitting.
Throughout, author Ellinghausen showed off an impressive ability with descriptive language – I was always able to immediately pick up on the setting and see the scene vividly in my mind’s eye. Additionally, despite its brevity, the story managed to include a romantic side-plot and a largish cast of well-drawn odd-ball characters to inject some complexity into what could easily have deteriorated into a violent slapstick routine. (To be fair, it did briefly cross from “quirky” to “horrifyingly psychotically brutal”. As one might naturally expect in Wisconsin, fish hooks were involved. If you are at all squeamish, be forewarned.)
I believe that the author hopes to be compared to Carl Hiassen. I am okay with making that comparison. Like Hiassen’s best work, the humor comes primarily from the absurd way many of the characters approach the situations they encounter. Odd but believable characters are in abundance, and it all gets wrapped up nicely in the end. However, unlike Hiassen, whose female characters are generally as interesting and complex as his male characters, Sunny was a wimp who was defined only by her relationship with men. That was disappointing.
Finally, the book contained a small number of editing errors and misspelled words. However, I give the editing/proofreading an overall pass because the problems were not numerous enough to detract from an enjoyable reading experience.
Do I recommend the book? Yes. Definitely. Go ahead and risk the 99 cents. I don’t think you will regret it. Just be aware that if you are looking for a cozy mystery for your light reading, this book is not it – moments of graphic violence are central to the book. However, if you enjoy Carl Hiassen and other similar writers, you may want to risk a buck on The Cheesehead Shuffle.