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 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.

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.

Mrs. Claus and the Santaland Slayings by Liz Ireland

Originally published in 2020
Mrs Claus #1

Love is full of surprises—though few compare to realizing that you’re marrying the real-life Santa. April Claus dearly loves her new husband, Nick, but adjusting to life in the North Pole is not all sugarplums and candy canes. Especially when a cantankerous elf named Giblet Hollyberry is killed—felled by a black widow spider in his stocking—shortly after publicly arguing with Nick.
Christmastown is hardly a hotbed of crime, aside from mishaps caused by too much eggnog, but April disagrees with Constable Crinkle’s verdict of accidental death. As April sets out to find the culprit, it’ll mean putting the future of Christmas on the line—and hoping her own name isn’t on a lethal naughty list…

In the past few weeks the weather has grown chillier and our nights longer which leads me to suspect that the holiday season is around the corner. While I am not much of one for celebrations, one tradition I do like to keep each year is reading festive and wintery mysteries in the month of December.

My first selection this year comes from the world of cozy crime fiction. Part of the fun with these sorts of books is their unorthodox sleuths – some titles I have reviewed on this blog see crimes solved by microbrewers, a former Vice President (who is now our President Elect) and even a kite seller. This book however takes that idea to a whole new level by taking place at the North Pole and casting Mrs. Claus in the role of sleuth.

After the death of her husband, April had opened a small hotel using the life insurance payout. Some time later she met Nick, a visitor from somewhere vaguely north of the Northwest Territories, and the two fell in love. It turns out that her beau is none other than Santa himself, newly installed in his position after the tragic death of his elder brother in a hunting accident. Marrying, the pair agree that they will spend their summers at her beachfront hotel and winters fulfilling their duties in Christmastown at the North Pole.

The book begins as the big day draws near when Giblet Hollyberry, a rather cantankerous elf, is found dead from the bite of a black widow spider that was in his stocking. This death came just hours after he had a heated argument with Nick in which he had called him a murderer and things look even worse for Santa when April sees a note written in his handwriting calling Giblet ‘a venomous elf’. Could April’s husband (who is, let us remember, Santa) be a murderer?

So, a lot of the fun in this book comes when the book leans most strongly into its rather ludicrous premise giving us rivalries in Santa’s workshops, fights between the various Mrs Clauses (both Nick’s mother, the Dowager Mrs Claus, and his elder brother’s widow) and a splendidly silly second murder of a different type of yuletide figure. The tone is definitely silly and in my case I smiled more than I laughed but it was a fun, lighthearted read that did a decent job of delivering on its premise.

I quite enjoyed April as the narrator of this story and I think her voice is used well, balancing moments evoking sympathy with ones that seem to suggest that she recognizes the craziness of the situation she has found herself in. The story never calls on her to do anything outrageously outside of that character’s likely experience or ability, and so she I found her pretty easy to accept. If I have any reservations at all, I think a few aspects of her character and background remain a little loosely sketched – for example, I remain a little confused about how old she is meant to be.

I also felt that the references to her life away from Christmastown and her squabbles with a busybody neighbor via email never seemed to have much purpose in the context of this story, particularly given how easily they could be resolved. Happily these diversions are rather limited and perhaps they will be more relevant in future installments.

Turning to the details of the mystery, I feel that the initial setup is pretty engaging. The evidence against Nick is fairly clear and this gives April a solid reason to get involved, particularly given her feelings about whether the elf constabulary will be up to investigating its first murder case. The stakes of her investigation are clearly communicated and the details of that crime seem fairly clear, making it easy to understand the initial facts of the case.

Similarly I think that the author also does a pretty solid job of expanding on this initial setup to add complexity to their plot, incorporating additional murders and providing the reader with a wealth of suspects of consider. While I think some characters stand out as more likely than others, the author does a good job of keeping most credible until pretty late in the novel.

Unfortunately when it comes to the solution for that mystery, I was a little less convinced. Though Ireland does well to maintain the reader’s suspicions of her various suspects, some are clearly more likely than others. By the time we near the resolution, the reader does stand a pretty good chance of guessing that guilty party’s identity. The problem is though that I think that is all the reader can do – guess.

The issue for me is that while I felt the evidence leant towards one character, there really is nothing definitively proving it. That means that when April does attempt to accuse the killer she cannot really prove what she is saying, making it more a really well-informed suspicion rather than a reasoned deduction of that person’s guilt. In spite of that however I did find the overall ending to be entertaining and satisfying in its handling of the character and her situation.

Most importantly, I found this ending to be in keeping with the overall tone of the book, keeping its sense of fun even as it injects a little peril into the mix. That lightheartedness helped to make this a quick and entertaining read that delivered much of what I wanted from this book – something light and silly.

Apparently Mrs Claus and the Santaland Slayings is intended to be the first of a new series of books. I am a little skeptical about the idea that this premise is sustainable as an ongoing series but I enjoyed this first one enough that I can imagine myself picking up the next for a future festive reads project.

The Verdict: This lighthearted novel is build around a decent mystery but it is at its most enjoyable when it leans into the silliness of its setting and concept.

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.

MacDeath by Cindy Brown

Originally Published 2012
Ivy Meadows #1
Followed by The Sound of Murder

Like every actor, Ivy Meadows knows that Macbeth is cursed. But she’s finally scored her big break, cast as an acrobatic witch in a circus-themed production of Macbeth in Phoenix, Arizona. And though it may not be Broadway, nothing can dampen her enthusiasm—not her flying cauldron, too-tight leotard, or carrot-wielding dictator of a director.

But when one of the cast dies on opening night, Ivy is sure the seeming accident is “murder most foul” and that she’s the perfect person to solve the crime (after all, she does work part-time in her uncle’s detective agency). Undeterred by a poisoned Big Gulp, the threat of being blackballed, and the suddenly too-real curse, Ivy pursues the truth at the risk of her hard-won career — and her life.

The theater is one of my favorite settings for a murder mystery. I think the reason is that when we enter a theater to watch a play we make a conscious decision to ignore any artificiality of the space to absorb the performances and mystery readers are used to making their own, similar choice. After all, mystery fans are used to idea of embracing and enjoying some of the more artificial trappings of the murder mystery. To me the combination of theater and mystery, when done well, can be quite delicious.

MacDeath is a lighthearted adventure that introduces us to Ivy Meadows (real name Olive Ziegwart), an aspiring actress looking for her big break. She thinks she may have found that when she auditions for a role in a stage production of Macbeth at the Phoenix Shakespeare Theater, even when she learns that it will be circus-themed.

Among the cast is Simon Black, a notorious actor with a long list of credits to his name but a history of heavy drinking and difficult behavior on set. He assures Ivy that he has changed his ways and asks her if she would be a surrogate sponsor for him while he is working to make sure he does not suffer a relapse.

While some members of the cast doubt Simon’s commitment, Ivy feels sure that he is sincere so she is surprised when she discovers him dead on his dressing room floor shortly after their opening night performance concludes with an empty bottle of Rémy Martin nearby. The official verdict is alcohol poisoning but Ivy grows suspicious and starts to wonder if there could be a murderer in their company…

A large part of the appeal of this story lies in its entertaining and sympathetic protagonist. Ivy is an inherently likeable character, often making amusing and somewhat self-aware observations. I appreciate that Brown gives Ivy a more complex set of motivations for getting involved than simply “I found the body” or “I must clear my name”. One of the most powerful is grounded in some aspects of the character’s background that are only alluded to at first but become clearer as we get deeper into the novel. This struck me as a pretty organic and convincing way to introduce and explore those ideas so they feel like they lie at the heart of her character.

Ivy gets some support from some more formal and experienced investigators as the novel progresses including her Uncle Bob, a private investigator who gives her a part time job in his office. He does serve a practical (if somewhat oblivious) role in the investigation, giving her advice that helps her develop some skills she uses in her own case, but he is also there to be someone who cares about her while he is also one of the few non-thesps in the cast of characters.

Turning to those characters, Brown creates an interesting mix of theatrical types to serve as suspects. To give a few examples, we have an exacting director who is determined to have an innovative take on the text, a rather controlling stage manager, a local TV celebrity who fancies himself an actor, several experienced thesps who have history working with and being frustrated by him before and a handsome young actor whose strong performance is overshadowed by Simon’s starpower. It makes for a varied and distinctive group and I think Brown does a good job of giving most of the relatively big cast unique motivations.

I found the early chapters of the book in which we get to know them and discover more details about the production to be pretty entertaining and I appreciated the humorous commentary about conceptualizations of Shakespeare. The chapters are relatively short, typically three to five pages long, which keeps things moving at a quick pace and before long we have a body on our hands and enter into the investigative phase of the story.

That investigation is similarly quite entertaining and it takes some interesting twists and turns. That is interspersed with some details about the play’s continued run and also a (sort of) romantic subplot for Ivy though it is more of a connection of the bodies than the souls, for those for whom that sort of thing matters. Brown throws in some further suspicious incidents which are spread out well to maintain interest and make the situation more perilous for Ivy.

Which brings us to the final third of the book. It is unfortunate that my issues with the story lie in the part it is hardest to write about without spoiling what happens – something I do my best to avoid in my reviews. For that reason I will have to write in generalities and hopefully it will convey a sense of my issues.

There are two aspects of this part of the book I did not care for. The first of these is the choice of the murderer and the second is an action that villain takes towards the end which seems to be designed to provoke a sense of jeopardy and excitement for the reader rather than because it makes sense for them to do.

These two issues combine to create a sense that the choice of murderer has been almost arbitrary rather than carefully clued. When I reflected on it after finishing the book I do think this isn’t accurate – there certainly are hints and clues given – but the manner in which they are revealed and they discuss their reasoning didn’t convince me at all.

This is a shame because I liked so much of what had come before and I enjoyed getting to know and spend time with Ivy. Even though those aspects of the conclusion disappointed me, I will say though that I some enjoyed other aspects of these final chapters and was left curious enough to want to try the next installment.

The Verdict: An enjoyable theatrical mystery with a fun protagonist but with some weaknesses in its final act.

Old World Murder by Kathleen Ernst

Originally Published 2010
Chloe Ellefson #1
Followed by The Heirloom Murders

Trying to leave painful memories behind her, Chloe Ellefson is making a fresh start. She’s the new collections curator at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum showcasing 1870s settlement life. On her first day, Chloe meets with an elderly woman who begs her to find a priceless eighteenth-century Norwegian ale bowl that had been donated to the museum years ago. But before Chloe can find the heirloom and return it to her, the woman dies in a suspicious car crash.

Digging up the history and whereabouts of the rare artifact quickly turns dangerous. Chloe discovers that someone is desperately trying to cover up all traces of the bowl’s existence―by any means necessary. Assisting Chloe is police officer Roelke McKenna, whose own haunting past compels him to protect her. To catch the covetous killer, Chloe must solve a decades-old puzzle…before she becomes a part of history herself.

Old World Murder was the first in a series of mysteries featuring Chloe Ellefson, a curator at the real-life ethnic history museum Old World Wisconsin. I am always on the lookout for cozy mysteries with original or very distinctive settings and given my love of history this seemed a particularly promising fit for me.

Chloe has recently returned to the United States after living in Switzerland for several years. The return was somewhat sudden after her boyfriend abruptly ends their relationship and she is trying to make the best of this new start. Unfortunately her arrival is anything but smooth and on her first day she upsets several colleagues.

The worst comes at the end of the day when an elderly woman meets with her and begs her to find and return an eighteenth century wooden ale bowl that she donated several decades earlier. Chloe tries to explain that she has only just arrived but the woman remains agitated and when Chloe leaves work shortly afterwards she discovers the woman has died in a car crash.

Blaming herself Chloe tries to track down the bowl, feeling that she owes it to her to keep a promise she made but she soon discovers that the bowl is missing. More suspicious still, the paperwork for its transfer to the museum has been ripped out of the book leaving Chloe to suspect that the death was not accidental…

While Old World Murder is a mystery novel, I think its strongest arc is the development of Chloe throughout the novel. When we first meet her she is tired, depressed and for all of her talk about how she is hopeful about this fresh start there is a sense of doom evident in the way she talks about her future. She feels out of step with life and intimidated by the younger, more driven intern she is working with and seems to lack confidence that she will succeed.

This book tracks her transformation as she becomes more assertive and regains her interest in living. This takes a while but part of the journey we take with her is learning about exactly what happened in Switzerland and why she has found herself in Wisconsin. Learning about those aspects of her journey made it much easier to sympathize with her situation and to relate to her feelings. This characterization work isn’t always subtle but it is superbly structured and I do think Ernst does a very good job of developing her in the course of this adventure.

Chloe is not the only perspective character Ernst provides however as she also introduces us to Roelke McKenna, a police officer who she encounters and frustrates frequently throughout the novel. Ernst tries to flesh out his character too with information about his childhood and family life, starting with simple story point about his father but adding some complexities and nuance to that relationship. He is not a perfect man and I found their interactions to miss the cute bickering sweet spot to fall more frequently into serious disagreement territory. The romance didn’t really work for me here but I think it ties in with and develops the broader themes of the novel.

The history museum aspect of the novel lived up to my expectations as the author was able to draw on some personal experience of both the profession and of the actual location that this book is set at (though, as she notes in an introductory note, many of the buildings are fictional). There are some interesting details about how collections are developed and these historic sites are run that are introduced in ways that feel germane to the story and its themes and I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of this world.

Incidentally, I also found the discussion about the nature of the apparently stolen object to be interesting and appreciated the information the book gives about the value of such items to the Norwegian immigrants. Some titles have difficulty integrating that sort of research into the body of a novel without it feeling like research dumping but given the object’s significance to this case it didn’t feel like the case here.

Ernst’s decision to set her story several decades ago was a smart one on several levels. For one thing it places the action closer to a time she had experience of this setting but it also avoids the problem of information being instantly accessible and creates communications issues for the characters. While there are some period details, mostly this is kept in the background or used sparingly to add color to scenes.

Turning to the mystery itself, I have rather more mixed feelings.

While I can understand Chloe’s feeling upset at the death of the elderly woman she was trying to help, I do think her motivations for getting so closely involved in what is clearly a very dangerous case are weak. Now, I understand that it is pretty typical of a protagonist in one of these stories to take risks in pursuing a killer but usually this occurs later in the story and is a fairly isolated incident. Chloe is reckless from the start of this novel however, frequently putting herself in harm’s way for seemingly little returns. While I recognize that this plays into the idea that she is depressed and not really taking care of herself, it does have the effect of making her look rather foolish and impulsive as she repeatedly makes the same choice (which, admittedly, Roelke does call her out on).

I did appreciate that the initial appearance of the crime did feel perfectly pitched to the setting, situations and characters Ernst had created. For most of this story Chloe is investigating the apparent theft of a historical item and while there may be some suspicion of foul play when it comes to the death, she isn’t setting out to try and beat the police. Instead she is trying to find answers to something they cannot investigate and that may be evidence that they should be treating that death as murder.

Which brings me to the solution which I found equally brilliant and frustrating. Being as vague as I can be, I can say that there are some ideas introduced in that solution that struck me as being quite surprising and clever. Those developments are not always entirely clued, though once you are told what they are it is easy to find evidence for them.

On the other hand, I found the villain’s identity to be quite disappointing. It is not so much that I had my heart set on someone else but rather that I felt that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for the reader to work it out for themselves. Those who read cozies as adventures will not mind this but if you are looking for a good puzzle then you may leave disappointed.

Where does all that leave me overall with the novel? Well, I would say that I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Chloe has appeal and promise as a protagonist and while I do not crave for her to get together with Roelke, I could see how that relationship might be built on in subsequent stories to be something I might feel a little more comfortable with.

Though it is not a perfect read, Old World Murder entertains and informs enough that I found myself to be pretty absorbed by it.

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.

Cirque de Slay by CeeCee James

Cirque de Slay
CeeCee James
Originally Published 2018
Circus Cozy #1
Followed by Big Top Treachery

While the circus holds little appeal for me as a place I might actually want to visit I must confess to finding it fascinating as a setting. Part of it is the idea that the circus brings communities together in temporary spaces but the thing that really intrigues me are the lifestyles of the people who live and work in them.

This can be a really rich source of story ideas. One of my favorite Golden Age mystery novels, Death of Antondepicts the absurdities of circus life and the rivalries between circus performers brilliantly. I also enjoyed Stephen King’s Joyland and Revival, each of which depict carnie life and the characters who choose to live that way quite colorfully.

CeeCee James’ Cirque de Slay also explores the relationships between the various performers who make up a circus company. The book is told from the perspective of ‘Trixie’ who performs a routine as The Smallest Lady Godiva, riding around the ring on horseback in a flesh-colored costume. She accidentally stumbles upon the body of the bearded lady but rather than report it, she decides to keep quiet and wait for someone else to discover it.

Trixie is not a particularly willing or enthusiastic sleuth. She is someone who is wary of getting drawn into these sorts of intrigues and she is aware of the risk that she might upset the Ringmaster who was rumored to be involved with the victim. Instead she is pushed into getting involved when the situation threatens to involve her anyway.

While Trixie is not a natural investigator being quite shy around other members of the company, she is able to use her talent for hiding to good effect. She is often able to go unnoticed by others as she moves around the circus and in doing so she is able to absorb information and sometimes discover physical clues. James doesn’t push this too far however and I think she succeeds in creating a credible skill set for a high school dropout with something of a tragic past.

Many of the supporting characters also stand out as being convincing and dimensional which is a pleasant surprise considering how short a book it is. James establishes a sense that some cliques exist within the company and while we only get to know a small portion of them, it was not hard to believe that they were part of a bigger, vibrant community of performers.

The mystery is perhaps a little less fully developed although I think it is pitched well for the page count and the main character’s skills as a sleuth. James provides us with several suspects to consider but while there are attempts to lay false trails and red herrings to distract the reader, I think many will identify the guilty party early on because no other suspect feels quite as credible.

It is possible that the mystery may have seemed stronger had more attention been given to building up the other suspects but that brevity is a positive for the book in several other ways. For one thing, the pacing is brisk and chapters frequently end on small reveals, encouraging you to keep reading. Also, by focusing so strongly on Trixie’s story and her interactions with several other characters James ends up writing a book that feels like it has some surprising thematic discussions about identity, valuing yourself and building a sense of family and community outside more traditional family structures.

None of those ideas are necessarily revolutionary but they are worked together very effectively within her character and the case brings out some of these themes in added detail. This causes her to reflect on her relationship to the other members of the company as she ponders what to do and who she can rely on and I found those moments to be some of the most effective in the story. There is even a pretty charming little romance subplot that adds some interest and color, particularly in the final few chapters.

As enjoyable as the story is, unfortunately I did find its solution to be a little underwhelming. One part of the conclusion struck me as very tidy but unlikely to work in the way some of those involved intended and given the possibilities of the big top setting, it is hard not to feel that a victim dead on their dressing room floor is a bit of a vanilla murder method. While I understand that the cozy style precludes some more macabre ways of killing, I do wish that the method had been a closer match for the drama of its setting.

On the whole though I found this to be a speedy and entertaining read that should appeal to cozy fans looking for a story with a colorful setting. The series certainly seems to have plenty of promise and I was pleased to see that a second volume is already out so I will look forward to returning to the Concello Circus in the future to see what else the author makes of this premise.

The Pint of No Return by Ellie Alexander

The Pint of No Return
Ellie Alexander
Originally Published 2018
Sloan Krause #2
Preceded by Death on Tap

Last year I picked up Death On Tap on a whim as a quick lunchtime read and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Certainly there were some aspects of the novel that were more successful than others but it had a charming protagonist, a nice mix of supporting characters and lots of small town charm.

The Pint of No Return picks up a short while after the events of that novel as the town of Leavenworth gets ready to host its annual Oktoberfest celebrations. A film crew is in town, hoping to capture the festivities to use as part of a film about beer and Sloan is initially excited by the opportunity for some publicity for the microbrewery she works at when the crew ask to come by to film her at work.

Her excitement is soon dashed when she meets Mitchell, a former child star who has been hired to host the production but who seems rude, obnoxious and demanding. The bickering between Mitchell and the film’s producer, director and cameraman creates an uncomfortable tension in the bar while his loud complaints about the town and the accommodation that has been provided for him wins him few friends. It will not come as a shock to the reader when he is found dead several hours later with one of his fans accusing the owner of the rental company of killing him.

Being the second title in the series, Alexander does not need to devote quite so much space to establishing the cast of characters or the setting and instead uses it to creating a wide mix of suspects, each with distinctive motives for murder. Some of these are perhaps dismissed as suspects a little too readily with plausible cases still to be made against them but I think this is typically in service of the lively pace the book establishes.

In any case, as with the first novel the reader will not be able to prove their case against the actual murderer based on the evidence given but they may well suspect them. The reader will likely work out the killer based on intuition based on aspects of their characterization rather than any firm evidence. The explanation given at the end seems to hang together pretty well and the case is tied up quite neatly.

Unlike the first novel, here Sloan does not have much in the way of a personal stake in the investigation once she is reassured that Mitchell did not die of alcohol poisoning. Sometimes this can create problems with the cozy format but I think Alexander pitches it well here, having Sloan show interest in part because she wants to know whether she should trust someone. Her investigative style is quite conversational and laid back and the reader is not called on to accept anything too outlandish in the way she handles the case. For the most part it works.

A supporting plot that builds out of a cliffhanger at the end of the previous book feels like something of an afterthought. The tone of this subplot struck me as a little too dramatic and some may feel frustrated that there weren’t clearer answers given yet but I think it probably sets things up nicely for the next installment. I suspect it is probably for the best that it not be rushed in any case.

The supporting cast of characters Alexander creates are, once again, a strength of the novel and I think one of the new additions is fun, even if some of her motivations are left a little unexplored. With the exception of her boss, the other characters are not given much to do and some of the threads are left unresolved, presumably to be picked up in a future volume. This in part reflects that the world of the investigation and the brewing community are kept quite separate in this story and so time spent with the staff at Das Keller or Nitro is time away from the murder mystery.

One of my complaints about the first novel was the way that the author’s research sometimes sat awkwardly with the story itself as Sloan would suddenly break away from the narrative to explain about a particular method of brewing beer. Alexander still has a lot of information to share with the reader but rather than putting it into the narration, she is able to use either the need to explain something for the documentary or a conversation with other brewers as a way of incorporating it in a much more natural way.

Epicureans will likely respond favorably to the descriptions of beers and German cooking and though I am not a beer connoisseur, I did find the description of a sausage, pepper and potato scramble to be quite delightful. Sadly nothing I could whip up in my kitchen could quite live up to that concept. As with the research, I felt that these aspects of the book were better integrated to the story and hung together very well making for a very solid, enjoyable read.

While not perfect, The Pint of No Return is a fun whodunit set against the colorful backdrop of a beer festival. Alexander’s characters are fun and the story unfolds at a good pace making for a frothy but engaging adventure for those who enjoyed the first volume.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Pint of No Return will be released in October 2018.

Blown Away by Clover Tate

Blown Away
Clover Tate
Originally Published 2017
A Kite Mystery #1
Followed by Live and Let Fly

While I have particular series or authors that I tend to follow in most of my crime reading, when it comes to the cozy scene I am something of a free spirit. I tend to play the field, having no long term investment although I wouldn’t be adverse to forming a committed relationship with the right series…

My usual criteria for picking out a cozy is that I like to find something that makes me smile. Sometimes that’s the first page of a novel such as Death on Tap while other times it’s a quirky or unusual concept. Yes, novelty plays a big factor in my decision-making and Blown Away features one of the more unusual and fun business ideas I have encountered yet – the protagonist has started her own beachside kite business, creating artistic designs for collectors and kite aficionados.

Yes, apparently they are a thing. There are even national kite flying championships and while I thought that surely the idea of a dedicated kite store had to be the work of fantasy, it turns out they exist too. No doubt the owner of such a shop is having a conversation at this very minute and scoffing at the notion that there is a very active community of readers online blogging about Golden Age Detective fiction…

On the morning before she opens her new store for the first time, kite shop owner Emmy Adler takes a walk along the beach and discovers a body face down in the sand. It turns out that it is the town’s hot young chef and, because he is her best friend’s ex, Avery immediately comes under suspicion. Things get worse for Avery when the murder weapon is discovered under her bed. Concerned for her friend, Emmy decides to conduct her own investigation, hoping she will be able to use what she finds to steer the Police in the right direction.

One of my most frequent problems with the modern cozy is the way that details of the settings can often be treated as more important than the development of the mystery. That is certainly not the case here as the author spends far more time building up a sense of the community and the characters that Emmy encounters than going into the minutiae of kite construction or operation. Where there is discussion of kites, it generally serves the purpose of the plot, either introducing a character or to advance Emmy’s relationship with someone.

The mechanics of the mystery are fairly standard for the genre, featuring just a single killing to investigate, and there is little sense of invention but they are handled well and the case was never difficult to follow.

The investigation features a varied pool of colorful suspects from across the community with a good mix of motives and each is given the space and development to seem a credible killer. I appreciated this because it meant that the reader will not find the solution by process of elimination but rather they have to imagine a credible solution for themselves.

One of the aspects of this book I appreciated the most was the Emmy is an amateur sleuth who makes mistakes that have consequences. She is drawn into this case to protect someone she loves and this makes her highly partisan, unwilling to consider any evidence that may cast doubt on her friend’s actions. Equally she is quite willing to cast blame onto others, sometimes with damaging consequences.

This behavior makes Emmy feel a more believable, rounded character. Her reasons for getting involved make sense and we can understand why she will keep getting herself into trouble. Her dogged sense of loyalty makes her all the more likeable and while I would often feel frustrated with her reckless decision-making, I felt the character is depicted consistently throughout the novel.

Tate creates a nice mix of secondary characters to flesh out Emmy’s world, including a potential romantic interest (who owns a rival kite shop!), a friend she makes while investigating the case and her kooky, interfering parents. The latter are particularly fun and I laughed out loud at quite a few things they said, not least the repeated references to her father’s Watergate Reenactment Society where he finds himself playing Tricky Dick.

Clearly this novel is working to establish the elements for a series and I appreciated the time the author took to build up some of those interpersonal connections between the characters. It not only pays off well for this novel but I felt that it was setting up things nicely for future adventures.

While I remain free of any long-term commitments, I wouldn’t be adverse to a second date with Emmy and her kites…