Book review: Aunty Lee’s Delights: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Meet feisty, food-loving Rosie ‘Aunty’ Lee, the plump Singaporean Miss Marple who is cooking up a storm with her mouth-watering murder mysteries.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 10th November 2014, 9:00 am
Aunty Lees Delights: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu
Aunty Lees Delights: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Aunty Lee is the charismatic creation of Ovidia Yu, one of Singapore’s best-known playwrights and authors, and her new series of wryly funny and clever whodunits has an appealing, international flavour.

A passionate devotee of food, news and other people’s business, Rosie is proprietor of Aunty Lee’s Delights, Singapore’s most popular home-cooking restaurant and an unlikely but fascinating window onto the seamier side of Southeast Asia’s bustling, multicultural hothouse.

Aunty Lee, a Peranakan lady ‘of a certain age and even more certain girth,’ is a truly original addition to the world of fictional detectives. With her nose for good food and her keen eye for detective work, this investigative genius keeps the island-state’s plodding police officers on their toes.

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After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could have become one of Singapore’s ‘tai tai,’ an idle rich lady. Instead she is building a culinary empire from her seafront restaurant, where spicy meals are available to locals and tourists alike.

When a young woman’s body washes up on beautiful Sentosa beach, Aunty Lee is the first to point out that the beach’s original name was Pulau Blakang Mati which, to those in the know, means ‘Island of Death.’

That same night, a woman who was supposed to be helping serve guests at a wine-tasting dinner party at the restaurant fails to turn up and Aunty Lee’s instincts tell her the murder victim must be the missing woman.

And when a second woman, also known to Aunty Lee, is found dead, the inveterate detective feels she has a personal investment in finding the killer. ‘I feel responsible for the people I feed,’ she tells her Filipina maid Nina who learned years ago that trying to stop Rosie is both dangerous and impossible.

The murders throw together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore and two elderly Australian tourists whose visit may mask a deeper purpose.

And trying to keep up with Aunty Lee’s sharp mind are Police Commissioner Raja and Senior Staff Sergeant Salim who quickly discover that the veteran cook and amateur sleuth can sniff out clues that elude even the most experienced law enforcers.

Ovidia Yu serves up so much more than a feast of murder most foul in this wonderfully witty and revelatory trip to Singapore… there are the contemporary moral conundrums faced by a community caught between East and West, a few political hot potatoes and the stark truth that the city has dark, hidden depths beneath its clean, well-run, cosmopolitan façade.

Directing the action are the mercurial Rosie Lee, a fount of culinary wisdom and caustic observation, and her unflappable sidekick Nina whose adaptability and common sense keep her boss on a firm footing.

With its exotic setting, colourful cast, intriguing insight into an unfamiliar society and the bonus of a recipe for Aunty’s delicious achar vegetable pickle, this is first-class entertainment for mystery fans everywhere.

And the good news is that the second book in the series, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials, which features scandal and murder among the Singapore elite, is also now available.

(William Morrow, paperback, £8.99)