by Ovidia Yu
This cozy murder mystery features an amateur detective and professional cook called Aunty Lee. She is a widow, and part of the fun comes from her confrontations with her step-daughter-in-law (step-monster-in-law) Selina. The younger woman is all the things Aunty Lee is not: Beautiful, status-conscious, fashion-conscious, concerned about money and getting more of it, and racist. Aunty Lee has employed a Filipina girl, Nina Balignasay, to be her general factotum, and Selina just hates this. She is always twitting Nina because she considers her low class and not nearly good enough for her family.
Selina’s husband Mark is trying to make it in the wine business. So they hold joint events at Aunty Lee’s cafe, where Mark presents wines and the guests do tastings, paired with Aunty Lee’s delicious cooking. Of course, the very meals that delight the reader as being traditional Peranakan fare appall Selina who would much prefer that Aunty Lee served fancy food.
But when a body turns up on Sentosa beach, it soon becomes clear that the real entree of the day is murder.
A Little Whine With Your Meal?
(That would be Selina complaining.)
“The menu for that night’s wine dining gathering was chicken and pork satay, luak chye, (mustard greens that had been pickling in vinegar, ginger, and sugar since yesterday–Nina had only to remember to mix in the mustard powder just before serving…) and the hee peow or fish maw soup made with prawn, fish and meatballs…Most of the visitors who came to Aunty Lee’s Delights were there to shop for her sweet and savory kueh, fried delicacies, and of course, the bottles of Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok, which sold out as fast as Aunty Lee and Nina could produce them.”
As a detective, Aunty Lee loves solving little problems to keep her brain active. “These little problems were a legitimate way of putting what the late ML Lee described as his wife’s outstanding talent for being ‘kiasu, kaypoh, emzhai se!’ Nina could remember the old man saying kaypoh, meaning minding the business of others with as much energy as kiasu devoted to their own. Em zhai se literally meant ‘not scared to die’ and effectively described how Aunty Lee drove everyone around her to despair through frustration as she pursued some triviality no one else could see any point in.
A Tale of 2 Old Ladies
Aunty Lee is no Miss Marple. The latter is definitely upper-class, and her detective work consists of thinking about villagers and servants she knows in St. Mary Mead. Aunty Lee may be rich, but she constantly horrifies her daughter-in-law with her “common” behavior. Also, Aunty Lee draws conclusions about people based on how they eat (a fascinating concept). It reminded me that people in Japan ask each other “what is your blood type” to predict your personality. Aunty Lee also experiments–she likes to reverse-engineer food and people too. And she knows when something is off. She seems a bit younger and more vigorous than Miss Marple. She doesn’t smoke or swear, but she gets quite excited and yells a lot.
In one way, however, the book is exactly like an Agatha Christie: Every chapter has a title.
As compared to the last book I read for this blog, set in Malaysia, just across the bridge from the tiny island of Singapore, the mystery is much gentler. The pace is sort of slow. And, it made for an easier read. I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t mind reading more Aunty Lee mysteries. Curiously, the back of this book has an interview with the author by Louise Penny, whom I just saw in my hometown. Louise is the Canadian author of the Inspector Gamache series, a much edgier set of books, and very good in their own way.
A Word About Singapore
Alas, I never did make it to Singapore, but I have downed many a Singapore Sling! The secret is sloe gin. Stamford Raffles founded colonial Singapore in 1819, and after gaining independence from Britain, the city-state separated from mainland Malaysia over what Wikipedia calls “ideological differences.” There are four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil.
The “Lion City” is just one degree north of the equator. The Pew Research Center, a few years back, found Singapore to be “the world’s most diverse religious nation”. I wonder if this is because of its geography. I mean, Monaco and Lichtenstein are also tiny, but not religiously diverse.
Buddhism is the largest religion in Singapore, followed by Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism, along with the 17 percent who say they follow no religion. Interesting.
Rating: Four stars.