Arsenic and Adobo
Mia P. Manansala
reviewed by Lou Jacobs
This is not your grandma’s cozy mystery. Be prepared to become immersed in the extended family of Filipino-American, Lila Macapagal (Mah-cah-pah-gahl) and explore their family and cultural values colliding with present-day small-town life.
Manasala paints a delightful cast of engaging multi-dimensional characters that one can’t help but become attached to. Lila, at age twenty-five, moves back home from Chicago, not only to soothe the scars of a horrendous break-up, but also to hopefully save Tita (Aunt) Rosie’s failing restaurant. She caught her lover (the shifty and nefarious Sam) in bed with her neighbors (yes, plural). She thus abandons her food management studies and dream of one day running her own cafe.
Once home, in small town, Shady Palms, Illinois, she has to run the gauntlet of her gossipy, matchmaking aunties—the trio of godmothers (“Ninang”) April, Mae, and June —which she fondly calls the “Calendar Crew”. They are not actually related, but were the best friends of her deceased mother, and continually shower her with love and judgment. They truly love and care about Lila, but can’t help but criticize her clothes, her make-up, her hair, and even her body habitus. This was how older Asian women apparently showed their affection. All from afar appeared interchangeable, with bad perms, love of floral pattern dresses, and a running commentary on Lila’s life.
Tita Rosie’s Kitchen was meant to be warm and comforting, imparting a feeling of having a meal at your home away from home. But, what was once “cozy” and “rustic” was now just outdated. Tita Rosie and Lola (grandmother) Flor were excellent cooks, but not very business savvy, and unfortunately Lola loved the casinos, which ate up most of their meager profit. Lila was in for a very formidable challenge. Even having to deal with Derek Winter, her jerk ex-high school sweetheart, is fraught with tension. He has become a food blogger and local food critic for the local newspaper and inexplicably was waging a vendetta against her family’s restaurant.
He would try a new dish whenever he came to the restaurant and managed to find fault with every single one. Regardless, Rosie went out of her way to be gracious and make him feel welcome. He enters one day with his stepfather in tow—Mr. Long who happens to be their landlord and is actively trying to close their business down. Over a typical delicious Filipino meal cooked by Tita Rosie that included a dessert specially made by Lila, Derek suddenly pitches forward into his plate.
EMS is summoned and Derek is taken to the hospital ER where he succumbs from an unknown cause. Allegations of murder by the restaurant and Lila are made by their landlord.
And just as suddenly a murder mystery takes center stage while jettisoning the previous rom-com. Lila proves to be an excellent sleuth, and is aided by her best friend, Adeena, barista extraordinaire, as well as her extended family of godmothers, cousins, and friends —all who provide valuable info. For example: Ninang June’s daughter works in the hospital as an ER nurse taking care of Derek. Adeena’s friend Roby works in the lab for the county police department. Her assembly of contacts could populate a small village. Apparently, anyone considered a friend, is awarded “cousin” status. Occasionally a walk-on presence of Lila’s adorable dachshund, Longganisa (Tagalog for “sausage”) graces our presence. The narrative is mostly told through the witty inner dialogue of Lila. She is out to prove means, motive, and opportunity for the real killer.
The police investigation is handled by Detective Jonathan Park—a supposed friend of Tita Rosie, who like a dog with a bone, won’t let go of the possible guilt of at least Lila , if not Rosie and the restaurant. He continually asserts outrageous accusations. Mysteriously a bag full of cash and drugs is found in Lila’s locker at the restaurant. Lila and the family are represented by Adeena’s older brother, Amir Awan ( the “Golden Boy” of the family). One of the Ninangs slips Lila a piece of paper containing a list of suspects—five restaurants and their owners—all of which have received equally scathing food reviews by the infamous nasty blogger and critic, Derek Winter.
Mia Manansala proves to be a masterful storyteller and incrementally drops delicious breadcrumbs of clues and culinary delights that will eventually culminate in an unexpected denouement. Her world is populated with a cast of endearing and engaging characters and a modicum of hints at romance for both Lila and Adeena. The themes presented are varied and significant. Touching on possible police intimidation, drug usage, fat phobia, racism, and even domestic violence. However, most important is the cherished value and importance of family and friendship. Excuse me, while I locate a Filipino restaurant near me to delve into the joys of their cuisine.
Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing for providing an Uncorrected Proof of this gem in exchange for an honest review. Hopefully, this is only the first of many Lila Macapagal investigations.