Mango, Mambo, and Murder
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
This is the first book in the Caribbean Kitchen mystery series, featuring a Hispanic sleuth and her circle of friends and relatives.
Miriam Quiñones-Smith and Robert Smith, both natives of Miami, met at NYU when Robert was an adjunct professor and Miriam was a teaching assistant. Miriam and Robert fell in love, married, moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment, and had a baby named Manuel.
Little Manny is now four years old, and the couple have moved back to Miami, where Robert has a job with the Department of Environmental Resources and Development, and Miriam – a Cuban-American with a Ph.D. in food anthropology – plans to write a book about the Caribbean kitchen and its importance in retaining cultural identity.
Though Miriam is happy to be back in Miami, close to her native Latin community and her best friend Alma Diaz, things aren’t all rosy. Miriam and Robert’s new home in classy Coral Shores is only blocks away from Robert’s parents, and Robert’s mother Marjory – an upper-class snob who thinks Miriam isn’t good enough for her son – constantly drops by and criticizes her daughter-in-law. Also, while Miriam is unpacking, setting up the house, and taking care of little Manny, Robert is golfing and meeting friends at the country club – including his old high school girlfriend Juliet.
Miriam is a bit irritated by this but is really thrown for a loop when, within weeks of moving to Miami, Robert announces he’s taken a new job with a land acquisitions and development company owned by Juliet’s father – a job that doesn’t fit with Robert’s environmental interests. Moreover, Robert buys a $90,000 Tesla the Smiths can’t afford, and – despite Miriam’s questions – avoids explaining his actions.
Meanwhile, Miriam’s best friend Alma, a real estate agent who knows the value of networking, insists Miriam establish herself in toney Coral Shores. So Alma sets Miriam up with an audition for a cooking segment on the Latino morning show UnMundo and takes Miriam to a Women’s Club luncheon. At the luncheon, a woman named Sunny Weatherman collapses and dies. A few days later, Alma takes Miriam to a promotional event where a woman called Elliot Truman collapses and dies. Both Sunny and Elliot had been using products sold by Dr. Mario Fuentes, who advertises himself as a preeminent MD who combines western medicine with ancient herbal practices from the West Indies.
To Miriam’s shock, her friend Alma is arrested, accused of giving Sunny Weatherman drugs that caused a cocaine heart attack. Miriam is certain Alma is innocent, and feels if anyone is responsible for Sunny’s death, it must be Dr. Fuentes. So Miriam launches her own investigation, to the annoyance of Detective Frank Pullman, who’s in charge of the police case. Soon enough, however, Detective Pullman sees the value of having someone ‘inside’ the Coral Shores community and brings Miriam into his investigation, anointing her the neighborhood’s Veronica Mars (a fictional TV sleuth).
At this point, Miriam has a lot on her mind. She’s taking care of Manny, who she converses with in Spanish, so he’ll be bilingual; she’s making new friends in the community; she’s taping cooking segments and promotional blurbs for the UnMundo show; she’s going to Mambo-cise classes, to keep in shape; she’s concerned about her marriage to Robert, who’s spending a lot of time with Juliet; and she’s trying to clear her best friend Alma of murder charges.
Things are not always as they seem in this cozy mystery and Miriam perseveres until she discovers the truth about everything.
This is a multicultural cozy, with some Spanish dialog sprinkled throughout. This didn’t bother me because the meaning is usually clear from the context. For instance, when little Manny wakes up and wanders into the kitchen, Miriam says: “Buenas dias mi principe. ¿Qué quieres para desayunar?” Manny responds “¡Panqueques!” and Miriam makes her son pancakes with a topping of cream cheese and guava.
Miriam is a bold, appealing character who takes the high road with her difficult mother-in-law; prepares delicious Cuban dishes; braves vermin and bugs to clear her friend Alma’s name; and deftly bridges Miami’s multiethnic culture. I look forward to her future adventures.
The book contains recipes for Papaya Smoothie, Saint-Tropez Sangria, Picadillo de Pavo (Spanish Sloppy Joe), and Chicken Fricassee Cuban Style.