Soured by shutdown, federal courts employee retires to write rural mysteries


Jeanne Cooney is retiring from working nearly 30 years in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota. Her next gig will be writing "rural-humor" mystery novels. (Photo courtesy of Jeanne Cooney)

For years, Jeanne Cooney has been the go-to press contact for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota. Reporters buzzed her with questions about some of the most complex court cases of the day -- Tom Petters, Denny Hecker, and al-Shabab recruitment, to name a few.

So it was a surprise to learn that Cooney, even with her affable demeanor and Up Nort' accent, is now transitioning from federal employee to the writer of "rural humor" whodunits.

The Red River Valley native will be the first to tell you that her book, “Hot Dish Heaven: A Murder Mystery with Recipes,” is not high-brow literature. The story about a young Minneapolis reporter who tries to unravel an unsolved homicide in the small town of Kennedy really does come packaged with recipes for Jell-O salads, hot dish and bars.

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Cooney is taking an early buyout in the coming weeks, a decision she's feeling even better about following the government shutdown that kept her home for 16 days.

"I know I'm done here. It's been almost 30 years. I'm burnt out," she said of her retirement. "And all of this nonsense we're witnessing out of Washington reminds me it's time to go. When we go through this whole budget mess again, I don't want to be a part of it. I've had it."

Cooney just signed an agreement to write a sequel to her debut. We chatted with her by phone about her writing career.

Aren't you glad you have a Plan B?

The book thing is a hoot, but you don't earn a lot of money. I'm learning that. It's like baseball. You have the major leagues -- people like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and John Grisham. Most of us are just in the minor leagues or on the farm teams. We will barely, barely make ends meet.

Explain the concept of this book.

It started out as a cookbook that I was going to create for my family for Christmas gifts. Then I thought it would be fun to do more of a story in that narrative. Soon I had this story about a young female reporter from a Minneapolis paper, Emerald Malloy, who is sent to gather hot dish, Jell-O and bar recipes from the owner of a cafe in the Red River Valley. The Minneapolis paper was going to do a spread on funeral food.

She went up there, but she wasn't happy about it because she had a master's in journalism and thought she deserved far better than being a gofer. When she's up there, she learns of this unsolved murder, and she thinks that's what's going to catapult her to the job of investigative reporter.

Where did the recipes come from?

I'm not a very good cook, but even I can make hot dish. But I am a pretty good baker, and years ago I baked competitively. Some of the recipes in the book are State Fair ribbon recipes.

How much of work in the federal courts informed the writing of your book?

Not much. I stayed away from anything that was involved with the federal system, or where someone might associate what I wrote with one of our cases. I had to get permission to do this from [the Justice Department]. That was tough enough. This book is tongue in cheek. If it were close at all to anything that actually happened, I think that would have been very difficult to get approved.

So is this your retirement plan?

I guess so. The book is actually doing really well. It has ranked as high as No. 5 nationally on Amazon in the rural humor category.

What is "rural humor"?

At first I got real excited, but then I thought, "Hmm, is that for people who talk funny and live in the boonies?" I looked and saw that's where Jeff Foxworthy's books are, and Garrison Keillor's stuff. It's more of the down-home-humor-type of books.

How would you describe the people of the Red River Valley?

They're Scandinavian Lutherans, for the most part.

Would that apply to you, too?

I'm Irish Catholic, and I grew up in that environment. That's what this character is -- Emerald Malloy is an Irish-Catholic reporter. I was definitely a fish out of water. I saw things that maybe they all took for granted. I find Scandinavian people very passive. They're stoic. There's not a big emotional range at play there.

Would you say that is an overgeneralization?

Oh, without a doubt. I'm certainly not going to let the truth get in the way of my good stories.

It's sugar beet country, and those northern Red River Valley sugar beet growers are probably some of the richest farmers around. In fact many are millionaires, and yet they are the most unassuming millionaires you'll ever meet, doncha know. People often confuse their simple lifestyle with ignorance, and that's a big mistake. They're very savvy people. They've just chosen a much simpler lifestyle. That's home for me.