Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Originally published in 2021
Tita Rosie’s Bakery #1
Followed by Homicide and Halo-Halo

When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes[…] But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.

With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…

I have been curious to try Arsenic and Adobo since I first read some of the pre-publication reviews last year. I checked it out from the library on several occasions but it has been a pretty high-demand title, meaning that whenever I would be about to get to it I would find it had been requested by someone else. In the end I decided just to go ahead and treat myself to a copy which turned out to be an excellent idea as my copy turned up toward the end of a very busy week, just when I was in the perfect mood to read a cozy.

Lila Macapagal has returned to her family home after experiencing a rough breakup. One of her reasons for returning is to help out with running her aunt’s restaurant. Unfortunately this task has proven much harder than she expected in spite of her industry experience and the family have become badly over-extended, missing rent payments and relying on credit cards. They need a bit of luck. Unfortunately they get just the opposite.

One of the problems Lila has been dealing with since coming back to town is her ex from years earlier. Any trace of affection between Lila and Derek has long since disappeared and the situation has not been helped by his frequent visits to the restaurant as a local food critic, writing harsh reviews each time. When he turns up once again, this time with his stepfather in tow, Lila loses his patience and tells him exactly what she is thinking.

Derek collapses moments later, his face landing in his dessert. He is dead before help can even arrive and Lila soon finds herself as the police’s primary suspect. Even more problematically the restaurant is forbidden from doing any business until the murder case is resolved, creating added uncertainty for the restaurant’s future. Keen to do something to clear her own name and allow the restaurant to trade again, we follow Lila as she decides she will have to ask around in the hope of getting some alternative information…

The trope of the suspect investigating can be a surprisingly tricky one to do convincingly but I think it works well here, in part because she is more focused on the damage being caused. Lila’s approach is chatty and more relaxed than you might expect from someone under heavy suspicion themselves. Given that there is very little physical evidence (and that which we get has already been collected by the police), instead we will be looking to interpret the scene based upon information divulged in conversation with other possible suspects.

Before moving on from discussing the style of the investigation, I think I ought to stress that while the investigation is enjoyable to follow, in part because of some pretty striking character work, readers looking for fair play may be a little disappointed. The reader will get a critical piece of information about how the crime was committed very shortly before the solution is provided – that feels too late in the game given its importance.

Questions of who would want Derek dead and why are fairer game. I would caution readers to be careful however if they choose to read the introductory note from the writer before the novel begins which outlines some possible trigger warnings. I inferred quite a bit of the plot from some information provided there. There is a similar list without the additional notes available on the author’s website which makes for safer, less potentially spoilery reading. Also check out the website for book club discussion guides and tie-in recipes.

I thought that the solution to the mystery was pretty clever and that the investigation touches on some interesting and topical ideas. Those ideas are presented thoughtfully and I felt that the author handled them with sensitivity and understanding.

The greatest strength of the book though is its cast of characters, particularly those within Lila’s circle of family and friends. One aspect of the characterizations I found particularly interesting was the discussion of attitudes toward retaining cultural identity. As an immigrant to the United States myself, I connected with the questions it raises about those multiple identities and understood the (gentle) conflict between the different generations of the Macapagal family which manifest most strongly in questions related to cooking.

I also really enjoyed the portrayal of family more generally throughout the book. I appreciated that Lila’s feelings towards her own are complex and sometimes conflicted – that they can be both a sense of strength and also of vulnerability and anxiety. The scenes Lila shares with her family are some of the most enjoyable in the book and they were a large part of the reason I felt invested in them and the fate of their business from early in the book.

One source of family anxiety is Lila’s knowledge that the family are pushing for her to date again. There are a couple of possible romantic options presented during the novel and I could easily imagine readers being split on their preference. I enjoyed the scenes with each option and I will look forward to future volumes in this series to see how this aspect of Lila’s life develops.

The Verdict: As a series start, Arsenic and Adobo has a lot to offer from an appealing main character to some interesting social commentary. While I was a little disappointed that some information necessary to solving the puzzle was introduced a little late in the proceedings, I did find the solution to be both interesting and well thought-out. I certainly enjoyed this enough that I am sure I will try the next in the series.

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