Mia P. Manansala: Homicide and Halo-Halo

This charming second novel in Mia Manasala’s standout new series is as delectable as the first.  Instead of being set in the main character, Lila’s, aunt’s restaurant, it’s set in the world of a small town beauty pageant.  Lila, a former winner turned business owner, is now a reluctant judge.  Manansala takes several typically cozy tropes and slightly tweaks them.  There’s a bit of a romantic triangle for Lila; there’s a new business she’s setting up with her two best friends, the Brew-Ha café; and then there’s the beauty pageant to provide a rich array of suspects for the eventual murder.

When the beauty pageant judges, contestants and as Lila refers to them, “momtestants,” are revealed it’s quickly obvious who will be killed.  There’s an especially reprehensible judge – one who seems to hit on the contestants – whose wealthy family has a lot of clout in town. He’s so nasty that it’s hardly a surprise when Lila and her cute dachshund discover his body on their morning run.  Lila’s friend Bernadette is quickly identified as a suspect, and that’s when Lila and her posse of aunts go into action.

This is all a fairly typical cozy set up but Manansala makes it special by injecting a few different ingredients into the mix.  One is simply the Filipino American food that plays almost a character role in the book.  I’ve never had the dessert described here, Halo-Halo, but it sounds delicious as does most of the other food, which almost jumps off the page as it’s described.  It’s a very rich aspect of the books so far.

The other aspect that isn’t so typical is Lila herself.  While it is typical to have a main character leave the big city and come back to her home town, as Lila did in book one, what’s not so typical is for her to be a woman of color, one whose experience as a woman of color is an integral part of her character.  The other twist is that Lila is suffering from PTSD due to events in the last book; because of events in this book, discovering the body, for one – the PTSD is getting harder for her to conceal and manage, and it’s an issue for her.

None of these things hang heavy over the plot, but they are a part of Lila’s character.  As she is a twenty something who has growing and learning to do – and hopefully a long character arc to be played out over many more books – it makes her growth journey an interesting and compelling one. It adds to the richness and nuance of the book as a whole.

That said this is a fun cozy plot – the beauty pageant is all you might hope for, with tears, achievement and back stage mom management – making the whole set up pretty delectable.  There’s also the bitter sister of the dead man and his oh so slick wife, both of whom are involved in the pageant.  Lila’s attitude toward the pageant is mixed – her mother was able to come to America on the strength of a beauty pageant in the Philippines and she was a winner herself, but she’s not so sure it’s a great outlet for the girls.

However, my favorite lights out moment in the book was not pageant related, but cooking related.  When one of Lila’s aunts serves her what she thinks of as “mommy’s chicken” telling her the recipe isn’t quite right, it sparks something in her in many ways.  It’s a turning point.  The moment has it all – tears, joy, memories, both good and bad – as they say on many cooking shows, it’s a “perfect bite.”  As is this wonderful book.