Arsenic and Adobo
During the early nineties and nones, I spent a lot of my time reading about how caterers, bakers, innkeepers and tea shop owners had clients drop dead of murder at their eateries/events/hotels and then went about solving the crime before the incident ruined their business. Stepping into that long standing tradition of combining delicious food with clever heroines who know how to cook and hunt down killers is Mia P. Manansala with her delectable début, Arsenic and Adobo.
Until the murder of her ex, Lila Macapagal’s return to her hometown of Shady Palms feels like the setup for a made-for-TV rom-com. Girl goes to big city full of hopes and dreams? Check. Girl finds love and success in her new life? Check. Girl moves back to heart-warming midwestern locale after it all crashes and burns around her? Check. Girl’s interfering Aunties begin setting her up so she can find a new love? Check. Girl finds herself trying to save family business while dealing with all the men she loved in the past? Check. It’s the script to every Hallmark Christmas movie except that rather than rediscovering her affection for everything she left behind Lila finds herself fighting the same old battles with the same old people. Her cousin Bernadette still sees her as a rival, her best friend Adeena’s brother Amir is still off limits (even though it makes her heart soar just to look at him) and Derek, her ex from high school, seems to still hold a grudge against her even though he was the one to cheat on her. In fact, Derek has taken his antagonism to new heights, making it a point to write scathing reviews of the meals served at Tita Rosie’s restaurant. When he comes in to check out their latest lunch specials, Lila can barely stand to be polite to him as he practically licks his plate clean in front of her and then goes on to critique every aspect of the food. At first, when he face-plants into the dessert plate, she thinks he’s making some kind of joke, but when he fails to respond to her vigorous attempts to revive him, she realizes every restaurateur’s worst nightmare has just occurred -someone has gotten very sick while eating their food.
Once the ambulance arrives and Derek is whisked to the hospital, Lila has a chance to think about what’s just happened and realizes that diabetic Derek had probably put himself into a coma by ordering a high starch meal and following it up with a sugary desert. But once the police determine Derek’s actually been poisoned and his family starts pointing the finger at Lila and her family as the likely culprits, Lila realizes she will need to get serious about mounting a defense. It’s clear the police won’t since Lila makes such a convenient suspect, especially when they find damning evidence in her work locker. Fortunately, Lila has experience investigating crime. She and Adeena had once solved the mystery of what happened to their school mascot, and this shouldn’t be much harder, right? With her bestie in tow, and Amir providing backup as her lawyer/only person authorized to access official information, she starts to search for the killer herself.
The novel starting with a reference to how clichéd Lila’s life has become seems eerily apt given how very formulaic the narrative feels. As mentioned above, I’ve been reading cozy mysteries which employ busy-body grandparents/aunts/godmothers etc. as sources of local knowledge and general wisdom for the last several decades. Food service workers who solve crimes cram bookstore and library shelves. Girl detectives have been around since Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. The author brings something new and fresh to the scene by adding a young ‘woke’ heroine, a lesbian best friend and a multi-ethnic cast but the characters aren’t quite fleshed out enough to be truly unique.
Take Lila for instance. In the past four months, I’ve read at least three variations of her personality – a bright young woman whose setbacks in life have been caused by her bad taste in men and who just longs for the world to experience her culinary creations/baked goods/wedding photography infused with her unique cultural heritage. Lila is, of course, hip, liberal, affirming, feisty, and independent. All terrific traits but not exactly original in today’s literary market. Nothing about her screams memorable or different.
We don’t learn enough about anyone else to really make judgments about them. Adeena and Amir, as well as Lila’s aunties, serve as back-up for our heroine but they don’t stand out from the crowd of secondary characters who typically people these novels. They are the quirky, supportive, loving family and friends you would expect to meet between the pages of fun, gentle mysteries.
Average and predictable, however, do not equal bad, especially not in this case. While the story has little that is new to offer, the author does do a nice job of making the familiar charming, especially in how she handles Lila’s love for Filipino cuisine – I challenge anyone to read the first few chapters of this book without getting desperately hungry. The depictions of adobo chicken, rice, almondigas, suman, ginataang bilo-bilo and calamansi pie threatened to wreak havoc with my diet and had me dreaming of late-night snacks. While the solving of the crime is utterly ridiculous (this is a given with cozies, not a critique) and completely dependent on people sharing their darkest secrets with complete strangers, the murder itself is fairly complex. I was intrigued enough by the mystery to be fully engaged in the story and was pleased with the small twist at the end that I hadn’t seen coming.
For those looking for romance, there is some flirtation here and hints as to what might be coming in the future but nothing more than that. Amir and Lila never do more than gaze at each other longingly but another contender for Lila’s heart makes an appearance at about the forty percent mark and Adeena meets someone halfway through the story. All of the relationships stay firmly at the starting point.
While the familiarity of the plot and characters gives this a bit of a ‘been there, read that’ feel, fans of the culinary cozy are often looking for the comfortable and familiar. If you love this type of story, then I would definitely give Arsenic and Adobo a try. The multicultural flair and modern heroine add a nice touch of modernization to this classic genre.