Death by Bubble Tea by Jennifer J. Chow
Originally published in 2022
LA Night Market Mystery #1
Followed by Hot Pot Murder
When Yale Yee discovers her cousin Celine is visiting from Hong Kong, she is obliged to play tour guide to a relative she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Not only that, but her father thinks it’s a wonderful idea for them to bond by running a food stall together at the Eastwood Village Night Market. Yale hasn’t cooked in years, and she hardly considers Celine’s career as a social media influencer as adequate experience, but because she’s just lost her job at her local bookstore, she feels she has no choice.
Yale and Celine serve small dishes and refreshing drinks, and while business is slow, it eventually picks up thanks to Celine’s surprisingly useful marketing ideas. They’re quite shocked that their bubble tea, in particular, is a hit–literally–when one of their customers turns up dead. Yale and Celine are prime suspects due to the gold flakes that Celine added to the sweet drink as a garnish. Though the two cousins are polar opposites in every way, they must work together to find out what really happened to the victim or the only thing they’ll be serving is time.
Long before I started blogging about mystery fiction I used to do a podcast with my wife where we would read and talk about a book we each read (along with occasionally compiling book-themed lists). The demands of family life brought that little adventure to an end and these days we tend to read pretty different types of books so we don’t have that many opportunities for crossover reads. When my wife let me know that she was about to start reading this book however I leapt at the chance to join her – particularly as I had actually purchased my own copy of it just a few days earlier and had already been planning to give it a go.
Death by Bubble Tea is, as the cover and title will probably suggest, an example of a culinary cozy mystery. Its protagonist, Yale Yee, begins the book by losing her part time job at a bookshop. Her father suggests that she might like to run his restaurant’s food stall at a new Night Market with her cousin Celine, a foodstagramming influencer who has just arrived from Hong Kong. The pair will get to split the proceeds from the venture and so, though Yale is not enthused at the prospect of the collaboration, they set about preparing a small menu of drinks and snacks for the event.
After a slow start, business picks up when a customer purchases a bubble tea made by Yale and for which Celine devises an eye-catching presentation. At the end of the evening they seem to have done pretty well but when they head back to their car, Yale is shocked to find the a body lying under it. When the police tell them that they suspect that the victim may have been poisoned by one of the drinks made at their stall, Yale and Celine have to come together to demonstrate their innocence and discover the real killer’s identity.
One of the biggest challenges any amateur detective story faces is in convincing the reader why an individual would take matters into their own hands and investigate it themselves. We not only have to accept the credibility that they would be drawn into the case themselves, we then need to believe that they might have the skills, drive, and initiative to find its solution.
The author, Jennifer J. Chow, takes the well-worn path of having the sleuth appear to be in considerable peril if things stay as they are. Inaction seems not to be an option as the police have got an idea into their heads that they cannot shift – that a piece of evidence links the victim to their stall. Their initial involvement thus is not to try to solve a murder but rather simply try to find some other possible explanation for that piece of evidence. This works quite nicely, making it clear that Yale doesn’t set out to play detective but that she and Celine are acting out of a sense of self-interest and the desire to protect the reputation of Yale’s father and his restaurant. This not only helps sell that choice, it also tells us something about Yale as a person.
While Yale’s motive for getting involved works quite well, this circumstance does not automatically bestow detective skills. Chow avoids making unrealistic demands of her characters in terms of technical knowledge of abilities, focusing instead on their efforts to get those they speak with to open up and talk. Where more specialized knowledge is required, such as in working out whether an ingredient in their drink could have poisoned the victim, Chow provides clear and credible means for them to get that information and use it to interpret the evidence effectively.
I quite enjoyed my time with Yale and Celine and I appreciated the rather uncomfortable relationship between the pair at the start of this story. Their relationship is not presented as a static one however as it morphs over the course of the novel in response to the events taking place. The role of this adventure in bringing about gradual change in that relationship was one of the most successful aspects of the book for me.
Their efforts bring them into contact with several other vendors and stall operators from the Night Market who make for a pretty diverse bunch. The conversations between sleuths and suspects are not all that shocking in terms of the secrets learned but they do go some way to explaining their traits and characteristics, though I would suggest that we don’t get to know many of those characters particularly well. On the other hand, I did enjoy the way our heroes play to their strengths in figuring out ways to get those people to talk.
It is perhaps a little unfortunate that the killer stands out a little early, though I did really appreciate that the author provides proper clues as to their identity. This is a case which can be solved through the application of logic and while that the reader may be left with some questions about their plans, I think that the messiness of some aspects of it make it feel more, rather than less, credible.
As a series start it does a good job of setting up the characters, building their world and making us care about them. While the mystery here is not particularly challenging as a crucial clue to the killer’s identity will likely jump out at genre fans, it is a lot of fun. It kept my attention for a couple of hours and left me interested enough that I am pretty sure I will want to pick up Hot Pot Murder when it comes out next Summer. In that respect it was a win.
The Verdict: A very solid start to an interesting new culinary cozy series. The book is at its best when exploring its family relationships but the mystery is engaging with a solution that is clued better than most.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number is 9780593336533.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.