The subtitle of this book is "A Singaporean Mystery." It was recommended to me in the comments on a post I wrote about another book set in Singapore, Kirstin Chen's Soy Sauce for Beginners, and now I'm passing the recommendation on. Ovidia Yu is a new author to me, though according to the author's note she is one of Singapore's most prominent writers, with thirty plays produced, as well as fiction and non-fiction books. These include other mysteries, but this seems to be the first published in America. It is the start of a series, with a second book coming out later this month (I have already my pre-order in).
The Aunty of the title is Rosie Lee, who runs a small café called Aunty Lee's Delights.
It was well-known for good traditional Peranakan food and famous for the achar and sambals Aunty Lee had been selling out of her house for years. Aunty Lee's Delights was also equipped with the latest modern equipment. Though she was revered for cooking the traditional standards, strange dishes occasionally popped up because Aunty Lee loved experimenting. In her view, anything cooked with local ingredients was local food. In fact the shop was very like Aunty Lee herself. Another passion of hers was reverse engineering dishes (and occasionally people) to figure out how they had come about and how they might be better adjusted. She called her kitchen her laboratory for DIY-CSI, the television in there testifying to her two passions, for food and news.
Though I had no idea what Peranakan food was, let alone achar, I took to Aunty Lee right off. She is "of certain age and even more certain girth." Recently widowed after marrying later in life, with no children of her own but two adult step-children, she has focused on the café as a distraction from her grief. But as much as she enjoys the work, she is starting to get a little bored. When the body of a young woman is discovered on the beach near a prominent tourist hotel and casino, Aunty Lee quickly becomes obsessed with the victim.
While she and her assistant Nina discuss the case, they are also preparing for a dinner to be held at the café that night. Her step-son Mark is trying to start a wine-importing business, and the dinners pairing his wine with Aunty Lee's food are designed to draw business. That night one of the guests never shows up, a young woman named Laura Kwee. Instead, another young woman arrives, asking for Laura. And then still another young woman goes missing. Aunty Lee suspects that they are all connected. She begins asking questions, drawing on her connections in Singapore society, which include Police Commissioner Raja. He assigns a young police officer, Senior Staff Sergeant Salim, both to assist and guard her.
In an interview with fellow mystery author Louise Penny, printed in the back of the book, Ms. Yu says that "I owe my existence as it is to Agatha Christie's books," because "It was through her books that I first fell in love with reading..." She goes on to say that Miss Marple is less the inspiration for Aunty Lee than Lucy Eyelesbarrow of 4.50 from Paddington. Aunty Lee is such fun to read about, though some of the characters find her a bit exhausting at times. She has enormous energy and insatiable curiosity, but also a great kindness for people. She feeds everyone, with exactly what they need - and not just with the food that she prepares. As she tells one young woman,
"I feel responsible for the people I feed. Once my food has gone into them and become part of them and their lives, I become part of their lives. In a way I love them . . . You say it's not my business, but all hungry people are my business."A major thread in this story is the treatment of gays and lesbians, in public and private. In a country that is notoriously homophobic, with anti-gay laws, Aunty Lee is open and accepting. When people repeat anti-gay slurs to her, she challenges them, often with some version of "Who are we to judge?" Reading this, I did wonder what the authorities in Singapore might think of a prominent author subverting their social policies through her books. There are other suggestions of darker edges to life in Singapore. Nina, Aunty Lee's assistant, is originally from the Philippines. Selina, Aunty Lee's snippy daughter-in-law, is very rude to her (and she isn't all that polite to her step-mother either). Nina knows "only too well that most employers in Singapore regarded their live-in domestic help with great suspicion." There are hints that she was mistreated by her previous employers, perhaps even held in domestic slavery. Aunty Lee is actually breaking the law by having Nina work in the café, since foreign workers are forbidden to work except as "Domestic Helpers" in the home.
For a while I wondered if the annoying Selina might become a victim (or the killer, for that matter), but that was really wishful thinking. The mystery plot in this story fits neatly together - though I admit I lost track of the investigation. I was caught up more in the characters, in their different lives and the way their stories intersected, revolving around the café where Aunty Lee and Nina spend so much of their time. I am looking forward to their next adventure. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of SSS Salim as well. And I need to re-read 4.50 from Paddington.