Review of Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge by Ovidia Yu (United States: William Morrow, 2016)
by Stewart Dorward
Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge is the third of the Aunty Lee murder mysteries by Ovidia Yu, one of the most well known and decorated playwrights and novelists in Singapore. The other two books are Aunty Lee’s Delights and Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials. Yu seems to have great fun writing these stories and the reader has as much fun following them.
Her Mrs. Rose Lee, Aunty Lee or Rosie, is the proud owner and very much hands-on cook at Aunty Lee’s Delicious Delights, a bistro café in an up-market residential part of Singapore. She is a rich middle-aged Straits Chinese widow who buried her grief over her husband’s death under the busyness of running her own café and catering firm. She firmly believes that in order to feed someone properly you have to understand them. That need for understanding leads her to dig into secrets that others might want hidden, including murders.
She is in the middle of feeding people when Chilled Revenge starts. In the café, one of her employees, Cherril, is meeting with two old friends to discuss a threat of legal action against them connected to their time running an animal rights organization. While waiting for their accuser to arrive, they receive a phone call from a hotel telling them that their antagonist is dead. Then the deceased’s sister enters to be informed of her loss and Aunty Lee is handed a mystery on a plate. Rosie easily stays in the middle of things by having the deceased’s sister move into her guest room.
Arthur Conan Doyle established, with the character of Sherlock Holmes, the expectation that amateur detectives would be eccentric and rational. Ovidia gives a nod to Holmes by naming one of her characters Mycroft. The original Mycroft is Sherlock’s brother and an advisor to the Prime Minister. Ovida’s Mycroft is an MP and married to one of Aunty Lee’s staff. Aunty Lee’s eccentricity is her desire and commitment to working in a social circle in which women like her are usually doting grandmothers at best and idle gossiping fuss pots at worst.
Chilled Revenge clearly shows Yu’s comedic skill and her ability to use it to deflate stereotypes. The first murder victim is the wife of a British expatriate businessman. While living in Singapore, she adopts a rescue puppy from an animal shelter but then grows tired of it. On an apparent whim, she has it destroyed by a local vet. The ensuing outcry sees her hounded out of Singapore by an on-line campaign and branded as the “puppy-killer.” The local sentiment is for her to go back where she belongs and stop killing “our” puppies. This neatly turns on its head the popular racist scenario of Chinese dog eating versus British animal loving.
All of the Aunty Lee books have this deft comic touch. At a simple level, the annoying step-daughter-in-law, Selina, is always referred to as “Silly Nah” by the café staff. Then there are also the witty one-off observations. For example, Aunty Lee says that she prefers catering to funerals rather than weddings as there is less chance of the client getting cold feet. Or her remark that many of her interactions with the police are oiled by her cooking. As she observes, they do not accept bribes unless they are steamed, fried or boiled. The comedy can also build into full scenes. At one point, Rosie decides that the best way to get to talk to the detective handling the case is call him from the police canteen with some suitable “bribes” to hand. Her maid, Nina, is elsewhere filling the car with frozen chickens for the café. An hour later, the car reappears full of dead birds. As they leave, the car is gingerly reversed out of the police car park so as not to hit any unseen officers, the maid glaring at the exit pay point, daring it to try and overcharge them.
In all the Aunty Lee books, the initial murder is of someone we either don’t know or don’t like and is unseen, in the case of Chilled Revenge, of the “puppy-killer” in an unknown hotel room. Both Yu and Agatha Christie have some medical training and this expertise shows in their mutual interest in medical or pharmaceutical murders, by poison, for instance. The later deaths are usually of innocents we might have grown fond of. In Chilled Revenge, it is of the vet who recently survived the firebombing of her animal clinic. The vet’s violent death is not seen by the reader. The third death is portrayed but is not violent as the victim does not know they have been poisoned. They are simply trying to make sense of the scene through their increasing confusion as their body closes down. In all three Aunty Lee stories, the only time that Rosie faces actual violence is at the end of the second novel. Even that danger is ended by her son hiding behind a door and hitting the assailant over the head with a bottle from his precious wine collection. Another comic touch.
Like Miss Marple, Aunty Lee plays up her image as a harmless older woman who could not possibly be a threat to anyone. They winkle information out of people by a mix of kindness and platitudes, and in Rosie’s case, plates of food. In Chilled Revenge, Rosie’s vulnerability is amplified by her sprained ankle. She is shown hobbling about the café using a cane or being pushed through the park in a wheelchair. This is a detective that needs looking after and should not be allowed to stand on tables while doing odd jobs around the café. Both Miss Marple and Aunty Lee have live-in maids to support them.
Yu departs from the Marple model by inventing a broad range of strong female characters. The women come in all ages, races, and backgrounds. Within the café there is Rosie herself, the rich middle-aged Chinese widow. Next to her is Nina her younger but not so young Filipina maid and general helper. She is from rural Philippines, the richest woman in her village but in Singapore near the bottom of the social hierarchy. With them is the younger Chinese Cherril, the former flight attendant who married the Indian Mycroft. The men in these three women’s lives are not intrusive. Mycroft is busy and preoccupied most of the time, though thoughtful and supportive as needed. Nina is not quite in a relationship with a local policeman. Mr. Lee is dead though Rosie talks a lot to his photos. He wisely does not intrude with responses. These women do not lean on their men.
In Chilled Revenge, the Lee household also contains the heavy intrusive presence of the first victim’s sister. With her, Ovidia manages to slowly humanize the unloveable. She is both selfish and self-absorbed as well as greedy and slovenly. She litters the immaculate rooms with fast food and candy wrappers. She treats Nina like dirt. She takes advantage of Aunty Lee’s hospitality by running up overseas phones bills and getting others to pay for taxis and even an air ticket back to the UK. She is also hysterically uncooperative with the police every step of the way and equally hysterically racist. Some of the racist comments made me wince and then wince again when I remembered hearing such things actually said.
However, by the end of the book she has been humanized as her hysteria becomes understandable. There is a moving scene that tips the reader into sympathy with this thoroughly unlovable woman. In order to trace the calls she has been making, Nina activates Skype, the laptop camera switched off. We are shown the Fitzgerald children shouting at a blank screen for their mother as they think the call is from her. She is loved by her children. We come to understand a little of the strain this woman lives under as she tries to manage her bipolar condition, divorce, and separation from those she really does love. But she does try to poison a customer’s dog, so the reader isn’t tempted by sentimentality.
Yu humanizes “the other” as Rosie is not taken in by the usual stereotypes. In Chilled Revenge, “the others” are mostly found in the budget hotel where the first murder takes place. In addition to the Fitzgerald sisters, the hotel also holds the effeminate gay manager Jacky. He is described as wearing lipstick and sizing up male eye candy. He is also shown as competent and solicitous to the feelings and welfare of his illegal immigrant cleaning staff. The cleaners are treated with kindness and respect by Aunty Lee. She wants to tip them for the stress of having to talk to the police but Jacky waves this offer away saying it has already been dealt with. During the questioning, the poverty of the cleaners is made clear. They eat leftover food from guest rooms, and one flattens a pretty cardboard box to post home as a gift. Unfortunately, this box contained the poisoned moon cakes that were the murder weapon of choice, and so it has to be handed back.
Aunty Lee is basically an optimist. This sunny disposition might be tempered by realism but she believes there is good in people. Cherril and Nina express amazement that Mike Fitzgerald is paying for the funeral of his murdered ex-wife. Aunty Lee simply states that he will be able to tell his children that he did all he could to help their mother in life and death. There is a pause and the other two women hesitantly agree. They do not really believe it but feel better for having said they do. In contrast, Miss Marple, in her own words, has a mind like a sink and she regrets that experience has confirmed her in this.
All three Aunty Lee stories would make excellent TV shows and be a good advertisement for the best of Singapore. Not least because it is hard to imagine the rich widow getting any closer to the seedier side of Singapore than the budget hotel. It would be improbable for someone of her background to do so. So, rather as Miss Marple rarely ventures out of Saint Mary Mead, Rosie Lee is not going much further than her up-market housing estate and the expensive houses she caters to with her delicious delights. Except, perhaps, for that once-in-a-lifetime cruise up the Nile accompanied by Nina and “Silly Nah” complaining about the waste of money.
Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.