“Cozy mysteries,” already a niche subgenre of crime fiction, contain yet another level of specialty: culinary cozy mysteries. For those just catching up to these labels, “cozies” are a gentle antithesis to hardboiled fiction – violence happens off the page, the hero-sleuth is no professional, and she (because the heroes are often women) lives in a small community, most often with a trusty pet, where everyone knows everyone else. Think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. Add in the toothsome culinary aspect, complete with recipes, and true satisfaction awaits. Debut author Mia P. Manansala’s “Arsenic and Adobo” has all that and more – but maybe don’t read it on an empty stomach.
Meet Lila Macapagal, Manansala’s accidental detective-in-the-making in the first of her “Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery” series. Lila is 25 and recently single. One too many bad decisions have reluctantly pushed her out of the big city to return to her insular hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois, two hours outside Chicago. She’s working at Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, which specializes in delectable Filipino cuisine. The eponymous Tita Rosie also raised Lila after she lost her parents at a young age, supported by her grandmother, Lola Flor, and the Calendar Crew, her “bevy of gossiping aunties” named April, Mae, and June. Despite the delicious fare, Tita Rosie’s is suffering, the interior needs updating, and the rent bill is overdue. Lila’s fancy degree in hotel and restaurant management – which she hasn’t quite finished, ahem – was supposed to save the family business. Still, she’s holding on to her own someday dream of opening a hip café, featuring her “bewitchingly delicious baked goods,” with her barista best friend, Adeena, who’s currently working across the street at Java Jo’s.
And then in walks Derek Winter, Lila’s high school sweetheart. “Too bad he’d aged into a ridiculous jerk with a puffed-up sense of importance and weird vendetta against my family,” she fumes. In the three years since Lila’s been away, Derek has built quite the reputation as the meanest food critic in town, indulging at all the local joints and then trashing them online. He’s been trying to shut down Tita Rosie’s “on a weekly basis,” but he can’t seem to stay away from the delicious meals. He’s back, this time with his stepfather who also happens to be the landlord, demanding his favorite table at a restaurant he’s publicly, repeatedly impugned. After stuffing himself and making plenty of rude comments, Derek face-plants onto his dish. Uh-oh.
When Derek dies soon thereafter, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen gets shut down as a crime scene and Lila becomes prime suspect #1. Detective Park, famous even far beyond their small-town borders for busting a murderous drug-smuggling ring, adores Tita Rosie (and her cooking), but he’s got no patience for Lila. Since he’s already decided she’s guilty, Lila’s only way to avoid prison is to find the killer herself – not to mention getting Tita Rosie’s reopened! Of course, BFF Adeena has signed on as sidekick, and her older brother Amir is already working his legal expertise. Yet somehow Lila always seems to be around when more bodies fall ... making Detective Park only more determined to bring her to justice. Meanwhile, Lila’s sumptuous treats – especially appreciated by her chubby dachshund Longganisa (yes, as in the sausage!) – keeps everyone well-nourished.
Chicago-based, self-described “procrastibaker” Manansala clearly loves her characters – even the bad guys – imbuing so many of them with rich, detailed, diverse stories of their own. Adeena and Amir are Pakistani Muslims: Adeena is queer, on the verge of maybe falling in love; Amir, too, might be looking at a bit of – let’s say, distanced for now – romance, as well. Detective Park is Korean American; his younger dentist brother is getting plenty of attention, too. Each of the Derek-victimized restauranteurs have tasty backgrounds. And, of course, Lila’s sprawling family members have oh so much drama of their own.
Clever with the never-saw-that-coming twists and turns, Manansala nimbly stays at least a few steps ahead, never letting complacency settle on the page. Just desserts await at the book’s end – literally and culinarily!