Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery featuring Lila Macapagal, who’s just moved back home to put her life back together and help save her Tita Rosie’s Filipino restaurant. Navigating the drama she thought she’d left behind in her small town, as well as a revolving door of old flames, nosy relatives, and matchmaking aunties keeps her busy enough until an ex-boyfriend literally drops dead while eating food she serves him. With the police convinced she’s the prime suspect, Lila must leverage her network of family and friends in order to solve the murder mystery so that she can save herself and her family’s business.
The premise of this novel is great! The execution? Not so much. This was my Book of the Month selection for April, so I especially wanted to love it. There were several problems that prevented me from enjoying this mystery, but three elements especially stood out: plot, characterization, and dialogue. (Okay, a secret fourth issue too: My edition goes back and forth between calling the murder victim Derek Winter and Derek Winters starting about halfway through the novel. Sloppy and annoying since I noticed it enough to stop reading about a handful of times. I don’t want to be in editor mode when reading a fully published novel.)
While I understand cozy mysteries are meant to be light, easy reads, I’d argue they still need to make sense. But so much of the plot in this novel just happens at random. Nothing seems natural. There is no flow. For instance, when Lila drops off something at the dentist, she goes there on a Sunday, expects it to be open, and it is simply because it’s narratively convenient, like the author just needed to tick something off a list of plot points, so she shoved it in where she could. And when Lila’s accused of assaulting someone and actually has an airtight alibi that could clear her of the crime, the police don’t bring it up because they find her to be a convenient scapegoat. What’s worse is Lila doesn’t even fight for that airtight alibi that is seriously airtight. It doesn’t even make sense! It’s a problem that shouldn’t even be a problem! I’ve heard of bumbling cops, but the ones in this book are so incredibly incompetent it literally gave me a headache.
No one seems appropriately spooked or somber about all the crime that takes place either. The police attempt to pin every murder and assault on Lila, and multiple people try to ruin her family’s business, yet she really doesn’t seem to be concerned enough about any of it. Stumbling upon a dead body actually slips her mind at one point, a murder victim’s family simply wanders away from the wake, and everyone is constantly more worried about hospitality or commenting on the quality of any food that happens to be around. It’s all so weird. No one’s actions make any sense. None of it is believable.
And I know Lila’s supposed to be sarcastic and somewhat glib, but that only comes across half the time. Other than when she can make herself be grateful for her family (but only until she figures out how to repay the bail money her family put up!), she’s rather boring and has no personality beyond her appreciation for Filipino cuisine and belief that every man in town has or had a crush on her. Lila’s backstory contains some interesting elements, but it’s only referenced to establish her as a character troubled enough to warrant suspicion from cops who are otherwise terrible at their jobs anyway.
Also, people just don’t talk the way these characters do, and I think that’s largely because the novel needed a round of edits for show/tell issues. No one casually drops decades old history and family drama into fleeting conversations with random people all over town. And I know the amateur sleuthing in cozies is meant to be a little clumsy, but the dialogue with suspects was too redundant since everything was repeated back to Lila’s friends, family, or her lawyer. And I must point out that during one part of Lila’s investigation, someone witnesses two Japanese people having a conversation in Japanese, and he’s able to understand what’s communicated because he watches a lot of anime. I don’t care how much anime you watch. That’s not how that works!
Finally, all of Lila’s aunties and godmothers were difficult to tell apart, so I wish their personalities were more distinct. As a diaspora kid boasting my own network of aunties, I understand the importance of including this element in the novel, but again, the execution was off. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anyone other than Lila’s grandmother, and only because I’m not a total monster.
I was so excited for Arsenic and Adobo because the premise seemed promising and hilarious, but overall, it really, really missed the mark for me. I don’t want to feel like the author thinks I’m an idiot, whether it was intentional or not. After a while, it became a chore to read. I am curious to try the recipes at the back of the book, though. I enjoyed all the food porn, but a well-plotted book that doesn’t rely on so much suspension of disbelief could’ve included the same culinary adventures too.