Death Under the Perseids by Teresa Dovalpage

Originally published in 2021.

Cuban-born Mercedes Spivey and her American husband, Nolan, win a five-day cruise to Cuba. Although the circumstances surrounding the prize seem a little suspicious to Mercedes, Nolan’s current unemployment and their need to spice up their marriage make the decision a no-brainer. Once aboard, Mercedes is surprised to see two people she met through her ex-boyfriend Lorenzo: former University of Havana professor Selfa Segarra and down-on-his-luck Spanish writer Javier Jurado. Even stranger: they also received a free cruise.

When Selfa disappears on their first day at sea, Mercedes and Javier begin to wonder if their presence on the cruise is more than coincidence. Mercedes confides her worries to her husband, but he convinces her that it’s all in her head.

However, when Javier dies under mysterious circumstances after disembarking in Havana, and Nolan is nowhere to be found, Mercedes scrambles through the city looking for him, fearing her suspicions were correct all along.

A little over a year ago I read Death of a Telenovela Star and found it to be a really enjoyable read with a strong emphasis on character. I ended my review by stating my interest in checking out some of the author’s other works and while it has taken me longer than I expected to do so, I am very happy that I selected Death Under the Perseids as my next as it’s a really entertaining read.

It has been a rough few months for Mercedes Spivey and her husband following the loss of his university teaching job. When a woman turns up at her workplace to tell her she has won two tickets for a five-day cruise to Cuba she decides not to ask questions like how she won a contest she doesn’t recall entering and instead to view it as a sign that their fortunes were changing.

Once aboard the Narwhal, Mercedes becomes aware that there are several other passengers she recognizes and, upon talking with them, realizes that they all have received free tickets. When one disappears while at sea she begins to worry that this is not just coincidence and that they have been gathered for a reason…

As with Death of a Telenovela Star, a huge part of the pleasure of this book lies in the exploration of its characters. Mercedes slowly reveals more and more about herself and her past over the course of the novel with revelations often prompted by the people from her past she interacts with. None of those reveals feel like they are written to shock the reader – the experience is more akin to peeling back layers, each time gaining a greater appreciation of how things are connected and how she truly feels.

She is a great creation as are the people she interacts with, in part because Dovalpage avoids making sweeping judgments about her characters. While we soon discover that some of them have made destructive choices, we do learn their reasons for doing so which makes them seem all the more human and truthful.

While we may think she is foolish to overlook some of the obvious red flags about the cruise, I think Dovalpage manages to make it feel credible that she would do so. It’s not just that the trip offers a chance to refresh her marriage, it’s that there are also reasons to believe in this situation. For one thing, the cruise liner has hundreds of other (paying) passengers who she has no connection with. I also appreciated that Mercedes, while wanting to believe that her luck has improved, is not completely oblivious to those warning signs and does begin to voice those concerns quite early in the story.

The most interesting section of the novel for me is that set during her time in Havana as she explores some old haunts and meets with some people from her past. There is some splendid attention to detail, both in the present day and in the memories she shares, that give the book a really strong sense of place which brought that setting to life and helped me to connect with those characters and to understand their lives and the experiences which shaped them.

While the characterization is rich and complex, the mystery elements of the novel are perhaps a little slighter. The answer to the question of why these characters have been gathered will likely be guessed by readers quite early in the book, even if it takes a little longer to determine who is responsible. That question is perhaps the more interesting of the two though even there I suspect some will instinctively guess at the solution, particularly if they are frequent mystery readers.

That is not to say that the book is unsurprising. Even when events unfolded as I anticipated I found that I really enjoyed the character moments, particularly those in which the characters reflect on the past, and I loved finding and teasing out the connections. I would also add that while I anticipated the solution, there were some less predictable beats to the novel’s conclusion that I found really interesting and which left me feeling very satisfied with how this work developed its characters and themes.

While Death Under the Perseids may not be the best fit for those purely looking for a puzzle plot, it is a really rich and interesting read with a fascinating setting and strong attention to character. I ended up devouring it in a single sitting and came away, once again, with a strong desire to read more from this author.

The Verdict: While the puzzle elements of this novel are quite simple, the rewards lie in its rich characters and really strong sense of place.

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.