Book review: Death Comes in Through the Kitchen

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When American journalist Matt Sullivan arrives in Havana in the spring of 2003, he's carrying a second-hand wedding dress, a suitcase filled with pots, pans, cutlery and appliances, and the expectation that his Cuban girlfriend, Yarmi, whom he hasn't seen in a year, will be there to meet him. But Yarmi is not at the airport, and Matt soon learns why: she's dead.

Discovering who murdered Yarmi, and why, takes Matt, and readers of "Death Comes In Through the Kitchen," on a wild ride through the streets, markets, restaurants, bars, hotels and police departments of Havana at the turn of the 21st century. Looking for Yarmi's killer, we are immersed in the pleasures and difficulties of Cuban culture in the last years of Fidel Castro's presidency, a time and place author Teresa Dovalpage knows well.

Born and raised in Cuba, Dovalpage, who now lives in Hobbs, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Havana, followed by a doctorate in Latin American literature at the University of New Mexico. The award-winning author of 12 works of fiction and three plays, Dovalpage's first crime novel is a well-cooked stew of culture and cuisine.

We meet Yarmi first through her English-language blog, "Yarmi Cooks Cuban," then in the reminiscences of her friends, neighbors, family and co-workers at the Institute of Literature and Linguistics. Each chapter ends with a blog entry and a recipe for such things as sofrito, the savory base for many Cuban dishes, tocino del cielo ("flan's decadent, slutty cousin"), and lobster enchiladas: in Cuba, a stew rather than a filled tortilla.

Her first post, a recipe for merenguitos (meringue puffs), hints that all may not be what it seems: "When Grandma took the tray out," Yarmi writes, "the merenguitos were crispy and brown on the outside but soft and white inside. A little deceiving. But aren't we all like that?"

Was Yarmi "a guajira at heart, a basic peasant girl who loves veggies and flowers?" A hardcore revolutionary like her parents? A caring, generous person who gave frequent gifts to friends and neighbors? A chatty girl, "talkative and outgoing" or a "closed book"?

Each of the many suspects: among them Yoni, a taxi driver and bisnero (businessman buying and selling on the black market) whose older American girlfriend is a friend of Matt's; Fefita, a neighbor and former president of the local committee for the defense of the revolution, or "Fidel Casto's ears and eyes"; Taty, a busboy and female impersonator; Isabel, chef and owner of La Caldosa, a paladar (or private restaurant) where Yarmi sometimes cooked, and "a demanding manager, wife and mother"; Pato Macho, Isabel's bad-tempered son and Yarmi's not-so-secret lover; and Carmela and Pablo, gusanos, or dissidents, writing occasional stories for an American newspaper -- has his or her own answer to that question.

Local police lieutenant Marlene Martínez and Padrino, a retired police detective turned Santería godfather working for Matt, follow the rapidly accumulating clues to reveal not only Yarmi's killer, but the novel's stunningly unexpected conclusion. "Death Comes in Through the Kitchen: A Cuban Mystery" by Teresa Dovalpage is published by Soho Press, Inc.

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