Tuesday Book Review: Cooking With A Serial Killer (Recipes from Dorothea Puente)

It was my birthday in August and two dear friends surprised me with this title as a gift. As I’m sure everyone is now aware, I’ve been reading a lot about serial killers as research for my novel Conversations with Dead Serial Killers.

Funnily enough, they gave me the gift in a cafeteria and the waitress for our table noticed the book and said, “Oh! She’s one of my favourites.” This was a disconcerting thing to hear because, the last thing anyone in a café wants to hear is that their waitress has a favourite serial killer who happens to be a renowned poisoner.

According to Wikipedia: Dorothea Puente “was an American convicted serial killer. In the 1980s, she ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, and murdered various elderly and mentally disabled boarders before cashing their Social Security checks. Puente’s total count reached nine murders; she was convicted of three and the jury hung on the other six. Newspapers dubbed Puente the “Death House Landlady”.”

I think the horror in this book comes on a meta level. I’m reading a list of recipes from a lady who died in prison having been convicted of murder, and I’m fully aware that her preferred form of murder was poisoning. This means there’s a strong likelihood that any one of the recipes I’m reading could have been used to conceal poisonous content, such as the overdose of codeine and acetaminophen that killed Ruth Munroe in 1982.

Aside from the recipes there are some of Dorothea’s poems, transcripts of  her telephone conversations with the writer who collated and anthologised all of this material, Shane Bugbee, and some choice excerpts from the written correspondence between these two.

The correspondence is interesting in that it shows a woman protesting her innocence. This is apparent in her list of reasons why she couldn’t have committed the crimes and her suggestion that the man who conducted the toxicology report for the DA was an unreliable substance abuser who had contaminated evidence.

All of which leaves the impression that, if Dorothea was wrongly convicted, we’re reading the wholesome recipes of a woman who loved to cook for family and friends and tenants and had that pleasure wrongly taken away from her whilst she was incarcerated. And, if there was substance to her conviction, Dorothea was still trying to find a way of avoiding justice throughout her correspondence with the author Bugbee.

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