Mia P. Manansala: Murder and Mamon

Tita Rosie’s Kitchen #4

This is one of the more charming, youthful, and vital series in the cozy universe, combining many traditional cozy elements – cooking, coffee, a dog, family dynamics – and giving all these elements a new kind of flair through the cultural background of the main character and the diversity of the cast.  Series heroine Lila Macapagal now has her own place, the Brew Ha café, next to her Tita Rosie’s restaurant. Her large Filipino family makes for a rich background for the books, and in this installment, her extended gaggle of aunties – called the “Calendar Crew” are starting their own business venture: a laundromat.  They are getting set to open during the town Spring Clean event.

Staying with one of the aunties is a cousin, Divina, about Lila’s age.  It’s unclear quite what Divina is doing there but it seems to be tied to parental displeasure in some way, and they’ve sent her to the US from her home in the Philippines.  Divina, a recent art school graduate, is hoping to own her own gallery some day, though how to go about it seems a mystery to her at the moment.  Luckily the calendar crew ladies put her to work, and soon she’s running errands all over town for them.

The laundromat is suffering some setbacks however: it’s been vandalized, and the women are getting threatening letters every day.  When one of the family is killed and another is put in the hospital, Lila and her friends get into the investigative action, with the help of recently retired from the police force Jonathan (now dating Tita Rosie) and Lila’s boyfriend, Jae, the town dentist and Jonathan’s brother.

Much of the mischief, if not the murder itself, seems to spring from the aunties “speaking their minds” – aka gossiping about everyone in town, spreading helpful “facts” that often turn out to damage or hurt the people involved.  They’ve been instrumental in breaking up a marriage, causing a woman to lose her job, etc.  The aunties insist that they’re just telling the truth but – the truth hurts, and Manansala actually has a point to make about the dangers and damage of gossip.  Inside a fun and cozy read, there’s a message.

In a mystery, the writer can go one of two ways with the victim: the victim can be someone universally hated and disliked, pegged from the first page as deserving of their fate; or the victim can be someone sympathetic, even beloved.  Manansala goes with door number two, and that choice adds some extra emotional heft to the story she’s telling.

There’s also a wonderful scene where Lila hires a non-binary server to work at her café. This is something that simply would not have been included in a mystery novel ten – or even five – years ago.  Manansala continues to blow some fresh air through this genre.  It’s also obviously a genre she loves.  This is not a revolutionary cozy, really, but it’s one reflecting attitudes and mores of a new generation.  This is truly one of the pleasures of the series.

The other pleasures: wonderful characters – and the food!  Everyone in this book is constantly eating incredibly delicious sounding Filipino food.  There are recipes at the end and if I’m not enough of a baker to bake a chiffon cake (the mamon of the title) I’m sure there’s a reader who is.  The mystery itself is cleverly assembled with enough clues and red herrings to make the resolution a satisfying one.  It seems like this series is settling in for a nice long run. — Robin Agnew