Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu

Originally Published 2013
Singaporean Mystery #1
Followed by Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to an aimless life of mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served by Rosie Lee herself to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit–billed at first as a pleasure cruise–may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

Aunty Lee’s Delights is the first in Ovidia Yu’s series of mysteries featuring restaurateur sleuth Rosie “Aunty” Lee set in modern day Singapore. I had previous read and enjoyed her more recent historical series which began with The Frangipani Tree Mystery so I was curious to see how the two series would compare.

Aunty Lee is a wealthy widow who was married to one of Singapore’s most prominent men. She has no need to work but rather chose to open her restaurant to keep herself busy after the death of her beloved husband.

The novel begins on the evening of a wine-and-food tasting party that is being thrown at her restaurant by her stepson Mark in the hopes of turning it into a viable business. As Mark waits for his guests to arrive, Aunty Lee is more interested in finding out information about an unknown woman who was found washed up dead on the shore in a nearby resort. When two women fail to show up to the party, Aunty Lee begins to wonder if one might be the dead woman (they are though I won’t tell you who the body belongs to)…

Technically this is not a closed circle mystery though Aunty Lee recognizes that the guilty party was likely one of the group attending the dinner that evening. They are, after all, the people who knew the dead person best and we soon discover that several had strong reasons to hate the deceased.

One of the things I like most about this book (and Yu’s other series set in Singapore) is the way it captures the multicultural aspects of the city-state. The cast of suspects Yu provides are travellers from different regions of the world and each possess highly distinctive personalities and outlooks on life (though many seem quite narrow-minded and dismissive of the locals). Because many of the characters are visitors to the city, this also enables Yu to discuss aspects of Singaporean life from the perspective of insiders and outsiders.

A complaint I have seen in several reviews of this book is that some readers find the cast of suspects to be unlikable. I certainly can see the argument that some voice some rather unpleasant opinions. Several characters infuriated me at points in the story but there are also some moments in which we are able to connect with them and gain some understanding of their perspectives, even if we might still disagree with them.

Where Yu’s Su Lin (or Crown Colony) series discusses issues of colonialism and gender roles in that historical period, Aunty Lee’s Delights often reflects on Singapore’s dual identities as an authoritarian country and also a cosmopolitan one. Several characters anticipate how they might be treated when they interact with authority figures and I think Yu’s presentation of her police characters is thoughtful and nuanced.

Similarly the book addresses issues related to religion and sexuality. Sometimes these themes are explored with humor, at other times through debate between characters or more emotional discussions, but they are always discussed thoughtfully and in many instances they help build our understanding of the characters and of this case.

The mystery of the women’s disappearances and the dead body represent an interesting starting point for the story and I did enjoy following Aunty Lee as she snoops, uses her age and social standing to extract information and generally tries to push the police along to the right answer.

Frequently Aunty Lee is often compared to Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and there are some obvious similarities, not least their ages, observational skills and interest in people. Lee, like Marple, also makes use of her maid to follow up on leads for her.

While this comparison can be a useful shorthand for explaining some aspects of Lee’s character, I think there are some interesting differences between the characters too. For one thing her husband, though dead, is a powerful presence in this book both literally in terms of the way his portrait hangs in each room of her home but also in a more supernatural sense. In one of the novel’s most poignant moments, Aunty feels her husband’s presence and resents an external action that pulls her out of that feeling.

For what it’s worth, Yu credits a different Christie creation as providing the inspiration for the character – Lucy Eyelesbarrow from 4:50 from Paddington. While there may be less physically in common between these two characters, I do understand what Yu means when you consider their attitudes and practical personalities.

I found that the earliest chapters of the novel are its most interesting ones as we learn about the relationships between the different members of the group. While the chapters that follow are interesting and rich thematically, I felt that the case becomes a little stagnant until we suddenly get a flurry of activity and revelations towards the end of the novel.

It perhaps did not help either that I had guessed at the murderer quite early in the novel. That guess was not based on any evidence but simply a gut reaction to the various characters but nothing that followed really challenged that belief or make me consider someone new.

While I felt that the reveal of the killer’s identity disappointed a little, I would like to emphasize that I did feel it was a consistently entertaining read and that I found its themes interesting and handled thoughtfully. I particularly responded to the character of Aunty Lee who I found to be an entertaining and memorable protagonist. I look forward to reading some of the subsequent installments in the series to see how her story develops.

Further Reading

Criminal Element did a feature where they cooked the recipe “Amazing Achar” which is at the back of the book. They include pictures so you can get a sense of what it looks like.

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