Multi-award winning playwright Ovidia Yu comes back with her third mystery novel after a decade’s break from her previous, The Mouse Marathon.
This time, our amateur sleuth is an ageing widow named Rosie Lee (more affectionately known as Aunty Lee), running a well-loved Peranakan restaurant set in the heart of posh, opulent Binjai Park.
With a main character like this, you’d expect long paragraphs devoted to mouth-watering, and laboriously hand-prepped traditional Straits Chinese dishes, the same kind of lip-smacking magic that drew record numbers of food-obsessed Singaporeans to the MediaCorp Channel 8 drama series The Little Nyonya in 2008.
And Aunty Lee’s Delights does deliver. With our leading lady dedicated to the art of cooking, a new dish comes up at just about every chapter, making the novel feel almost like a laundry list of highly enticing food.
Aunty Lee is an open-minded, sharp, Peranakan woman who depends on her domestic helper, Nina, for the latest gossip and headlining news stories that have hit Singapore. She is responsible for reading out to Aunty Lee the latest articles from major newspapers online.
Aunty Lee is also loud, naturally curious about and questioning anything happening, but also is extremely endearing in the same way a grandmother is.
The story begins with Aunty Lee preparing her famous Peranakan dishes for a dinner she’s co-hosting with her stepson, Mark Lee. Mark Lee, who’s married to an opinionated, elitist Selena, whom Aunty Lee calls “Silly-Nah”, runs a wine-tasting venture. While Aunty Lee chops the ingredients and Nina plates the dishes, she discusses the body found by the shoreline of a Sentosa resort.
What starts as a casual night of alcohol-induced fun for their guests turns out to be a reunion of murder suspects as Aunty Lee learns that the victim is someone she knows. The novel progresses from a family drama to a whodunit blockbuster within a couple of chapters.
Despite the riveting plot, Yu manages to keep the warm-hearted, cozy feel of the novel throughout the pages by serving us dish after dish of fine Peranakan food, even when things heat up and the murderer is found. Aunty Lee’s Delights is pleasant and breezy for a mystery novel, although the jumping from each character’s perspective to another may confuse readers.
The novel doesn’t focus on clues or detectives and their gut feelings, but rather, Aunty Lee’s conversations with all of the characters, from the victim’s family to the police officers in charge of the case. This is truly what provides the novel with a breezy, comprehensible pace for first-timers of murder mysteries.
It also sheds light on homosexuality in Singapore, and has characters with all sorts of stances: from a gay man hoping his parents would come to his commitment ceremony, to a devout Christian who believes that homosexuals need to be cured.
While the ending is a underwhelming, with its murderer’s identity as clear as day, Aunty Lee’s Delights will provide you with an entertaining reading experience and the descriptions of Aunty Lee’s Peranakan dishes by Yu will definitely get you drooling as much as high-definition pictures of inchi kabin [the Peranakan’s answer to fried chicken] on the internet will. We promise.
The UrbanWire gives it 3.5/5 stars.
Title: Aunty Lee’s Delights
Author: Ovidia Yu
Genre: Murder mystery (fiction)
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks