The Smell of Money Being Made

Blog: What's the Big Idea?

The Smell of Money Being Made

Who doesn’t have a blog these days? I wrote the following post for a blog on the website of the mushroom distributor I visited as research for Cadaver Blues. You can find the original post here.

There’s a bit of advice we novelists give to one another, which is to remember to employ all five senses in our storytelling. As my generation grew up on television and movies — I’m nearly 51 — it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing only about sight and sound, especially as the novelist also imagines the story he wants to write almost as a dream-movie in his head.

But the successful novel gives readers a unique emotional experience by making references to touch, taste, and smell, as well as sight and sound. In fact, there have even been studies done confirming that when we read about smells it stimulates the olfactory region of our brain.

So it’s more than a little ironic that, before I wrote the mystery Cadaver Blues, my exclusive contact with the mushroom industry near my house came from a certain pungent aroma that occasionally washes over the neighborhood.

When my wife, daughter, and I first moved to the Brandywine Valley of Delaware and Pennsylvania, we didn’t know much about the mushroom houses that we frequently passed on our semi-rural roads. I asked a friend what the odor was one day and he said with a smirk, “That’s the smell of money being made.”

Indeed, I’ve come to learn that mushrooms are a huge and sophisticated business in and around the town of Kennett, PA, where I live.

Yet there’s something outré about them. It isn’t just the smell. It’s the fact that when one thinks of farming there generally are considerations of weather, scenic vistas, people riding tractors. Compared to that, mushroom growers are more like mad scientists, huddled in the dark, talking of “spawn.”

So when I decided to set Cadaver Blues in the Brandywine Valley, I couldn’t resist the notion of the hero, Phuoc Goldberg, having his own eye-opening initiation into this unusual industry. But at the time I sat down to write, I only knew two things about mushrooms. First, that I liked eating them. Second, that the fug I sometimes smelled in the morning came from the cooking of manure.

Fortunately, shortly thereafter I met Gale Ferranto at a cocktail party and she confessed, somewhat sheepishly, that her family grew mushrooms. It didn’t take me long after that to beg her for a tour of the mushroom operation, which she generously agreed to provide.

The distribution part of the business looked like any packaging and warehouse operation, except that everyone wore hairnets. From the perspective of a thriller writer, it would take a lot of creativity to scare someone in that spotless, well-lit environment. What would the threat be: death by mushroom slicing machine?

But the mushroom houses themselves — that was another matter.

Perhaps if you’re reading this, you’re a professional ‘shroomer so accustomed to the inside of a mushroom house that you don’t think twice about any of it. But to a civilian like myself, I gotta say this. It’s creepy inside there, folks.

Of course, I took that creep factor and went where mystery novelists go — over top and around again. If you read the book, you’ll see what I mean. Needless to say, nothing that happens to Phu or his friends bears any resemblance to what goes on in real life at Buona Foods.

Well, maybe one thing. Some days that odor does hang in the air.

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