Death of a Telenovela Star by Teresa Dovalpage

Originally published in 2020

Former Havana detective Marlene Martínez, now happily running a bakery in Miami, has booked a week-long cruise to Mexico and the Caribbean with her niece, Sarita, as the girl’s quinceañera present. Sarita is beyond thrilled to discover that a Cuban telenovela star, Carloalberto, is also aboard for the trip.

But even while trying to keep her niece away from the unsettlingly handsome actor, Marlene gets the feeling Carloalberto is in some kind of trouble—he is constantly on edge, and shady characters seem to find their way to him. When murder occurs aboard the North Star, Marlene will rely on instincts she hoped never to use again.

Death of a Telenovela Star was a bit of a happy accident. I had ordered it from the library having missed the words ‘a novella’ that is clearly written on the cover. I was surprised when I went to collect it to find it was a much slimmer book than I was expecting. Whoops. Totally my mistake. Happily it met my exact needs for this week as I found myself ludicrously busy with a work project and I was able to devour it while waiting to pick up my daughter outside of a class.

The story is told from the perspective of Marlene who prior to opening a bakery in Miami had worked in Havana as a detective. We find her as she is about to embark on a celebratory cruise with her niece Sarita to mark her fifteenth birthday. Marlene has been told to keep a wary eye on her niece who had a bad start to her school year after falling in with a bad crowd but is looking forward to relaxing and seeing some Mayan sites.

Sarita is delighted to find that a very minor celebrity, c-list telenovela star Carloalberto, is also a passenger on the trip along with his glamorous wife. Marlene however can’t help but notice a tense exchange between the actor and a group of toughs as well as some strange behavior during the trip.

Carloalberto is the telenovela star that the title accurately tells us will die by the end. This happens late enough in the story that I do not think I can describe any of the circumstances of that death except to say that Marlene does not really have to enter into an investigation. Rather she is able to piece together what she has observed during the trip to explain what has happened.

While the death is highlighted in the title, much of what Marlene notices occurs in the background of the story in scheduled excursions or venues aboard the ship. Instead the experience of being on the cruise and trying to decode her niece’s cryptic WhatsApp messages are assigned similar (if not greater) weight in the story. This didn’t bother me. The travel aspects of the story had the greatest appeal to me with the discussions of Mayan history and culture as well as the exploration of Marlene’s own personal history.

Those looking solely for a murder story may be a little disappointed. Carloalberto’s death takes place largely in the background and ends up being fairly straightforward. That reflects that there really isn’t the space to develop many suspects or to have a character dig up information. Clues largely fall into Marlene’s lap and it is not hard to piece together what happened, although one of the biggest clues is only provided right at the point of accusation. In spite of that however I will say that I liked the overall tone of the ending and the way it reflects some of the other things we have learned during the story.

Overall I quite enjoyed Death of a Telenovela Star, even though its murder plot does not feel like its primary focus. The story is told in an engaging and sometimes quite humorous way and I appreciated that it actually felt that the characters were travelling, making stops and interacting with historic and cultural sites rather than just being a way to create a closed circle for a murder.

It certainly interests me enough that I plan to seek out one of Dovalpage’s full-length mysteries. One thing I am curious to see is whether any of the characters here have a presence in either of those two novels, all of which are branded as A Havana Mystery on Amazon. I could imagine Marlene would work well in a longer book as she has both an intriguing past and actual detective skills to draw upon.

The Verdict: An entertaining amuse-bouche of a story. The characters feel relatable and the writing style is often amusing but be aware that the mystery often drifts out of focus.

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