Arsenic and Adobo is the delightful first book in what I hope will be a long series of mysteries by Mia P. Manansala, featuring a Filipino American protagonist, Lila Macapagal, set in the fictional town of Shady Palms, Illinois. Lila has recently moved back to Shady Palms after studying restaurant management in Chicago, because of a devastating breakup with her cheating fiancé. She helps her aunt run her restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, but she has not given up her dream of owning her own restaurant. Lila is surrounded by her close-knit Filipino family, including her grandmother Lola Flor, who is the matriarch of the family, her aunt, Tita Rosie, and three matchmaking “aunties,” Lila’s godmothers Ninang April, Ninang Mae, and Ninang June. These three are not Lila’s blood relatives, but they are just as much family to her as her grandmother and aunt. Collectively known as the “Calendar Crew,” they are three of the most delightful characters in the book, always trying to match Lila up with their various sons and nephews.
The restaurant is in trouble because Tita Rosie is behind with the rent, and the shady landlord threatens to shut them down. A nasty food critic, Derek Winter, who also happens to be Lila’s high school boyfriend and the landlord’s stepson, visits the restaurant and collapses and dies after sampling one of the desserts. At first Lila thinks that Derek, who had diabetes, died of diabetic shock after ingesting too much sugar, but tests show that he had arsenic in his system, and arsenic is also found on the dishes he used. The restaurant is closed until further notice, until it can be proven how the poison got there.
The police, led by Detective Park, find arsenic in a bag of rice and illegal drugs in Lila’s locker. Detective Park is all too quick to pin the crime on Lila, and he doesn’t believe her when she says she’s innocent and she’s been set up. He arrests her for the murder and she spends a night in prison until her aunt bails her out. The harassment and intimidation Lila experiences at the hands of the police are truly frightening to read about, and I wondered if the police would have been so quick to blame her for the murder if she had been white. Things are complicated, though, because Detective Park is half-Korean, and a friend of Tita Rosie. He does not seem to believe Rosie’s reassurances about Lila’s good character, though.
Lila is afraid she will be sent to prison and her family will lose the restaurant, so she decides to investigate, along with her best friend Adeena, who works at the coffee shop next door to Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, and find who the real killer is. Adeena is another wonderful character. Her friendship with Lila goes back to their childhood, and they share a bond and almost seem to be able to read each other’s minds, but there are also some issues between them. For a long time, Lila has had a crush on Adeena’s brother Amir, the lawyer who represents her, but she is afraid she would lose Adeena’s friendship if she acted on it. Adeena is very protective of her brother and thinks that no woman, not even Lila, is good enough for him. Also, Adeena wants to open her own coffee shop with Lila in Shady Palms, but Lila wants to go back to Chicago after she clears her name and saves her aunt’s restaurant.
Lila and Adeena have a lot of help from the three “aunties” in their investigation. They give them a list of all the restaurants in town that Derek has reviewed negatively. Lila visits each of them, and finds out that Derek had a scam going on with the health inspector. Could one of the restaurant owners have killed him for revenge? As her investigation progresses, Lila realizes that Derek was no longer the good-natured young man she remembered, and that he was deeply involved in financial scams and drug dealing. It is also obvious that someone wants to frame Lila for murder and possession of illegal drugs, and Detective Park is using a mistake Lila made in her past, when her cheating fiancé used her name to buy illegal supplies for his restaurant, to make her look like a criminal. And then other crimes occur, and Detective Park suspects Lila in each of them, even though there is not much evidence she was involved. She knows she has little time left in which to find the real killer.
Arsenic and Adobo is an exciting, suspenseful mystery, which kept me guessing until the end. Other reviewers have said they guessed who the killer was early on, but I admit I didn’t, until a very important clue was given relatively late in the book. I loved the main characters: Lila, Adeena, and Lila’s extended family. The grandmother, Lola Flor, is a stern traditionalist who believes in addressing people by their proper honorifics, while the aunt, Tita Rosie, has a warm heart and is an excellent cook. I also need to mention Lila’s dachshund, Longganisa, named after a Filipino sausage, who is just as much a character as any of the people, and who helps Lila and Adeena in their investigation. There is the beginning of a love triangle, with Lila, the lawyer Amir, and the handsome dentist Dr. Jae, who also happens to be Detective Park’s brother. Everyone can see that Amir and Jae are both attracted to Lila before she realizes it herself, and the two men are obviously jealous of each other. It will be interesting to see where this love triangle goes. Also, friendships and rivalries from high school continue, even though Lila and her friends are in their mid-twenties. Two other important characters are Lila’s high school enemy, Janet, who works in the hospital and has access to Derek’s postmortem, and her fiancé Terrence, who was Derek’s best friend in high school and briefly dated Lila when she broke up with Derek, even though he was in love with Janet the whole time. Needless to say, these shifting relationships created tensions about the group which are still going on several years later.
Mia P. Manansala takes what seems at first like the traditional plot of a romantic comedy or cozy mystery and makes changes to deepen it. As is mentioned early on, it is unusual to have an Asian American protagonist in a romantic comedy, and racial tensions and police intimidation come into play. The plot is also somewhat darker than the typical cozy mystery. We really fear for Lila’s life, or at least her freedom. Because we know this is the first in a series, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say she survives, but the events leave her with emotional scars that will be hard to heal.
I think that one of the book’s greatest strengths is the descriptions of the food. It made me hungry for Filipino food, and, if I were a better cook, I would want to try the recipes in the back of the book. Manasala shows how important food is to Filipino families. It is not only the food that Lila and her family make that sounds delicious, but it’s also the food at the other restaurants Lila visits, including a diner, a barbecue restaurant where Lila and her friends have been going since high school, a Japanese restaurant, and a Mexican restaurant. As I was reading the book, I wished that all these places were real. I highly recommend the book, and I am looking forward to more mysteries featuring Lila Macapagal and her friends and extended family.
Arsenic and Adobo is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.