Death Comes in Through the Kitchen

Today on Mysteristas, I’m excited to interview Teresa Dovelpage, author of Death Comes in Through the Kitchen.

I loved this mystery with its colorful characters, twisty plot, and mouth-watering recipes.

Matt, a San Diego journalist, arrives in Havana to marry his girlfriend, Yarmila, a 24-year-old Cuban woman whom he first met through her food blog. But Yarmi isn’t there to meet him at the airport, and when he hitches a ride to her apartment, he finds her lying dead in the bathtub. The police and secret service have him down as their main suspect, and in an effort to clear his name, he must embark on his own investigation into what really happened. The more Matt learns about his erstwhile fiancée, though, the more he realizes he had no idea who she was at all—but did anyone?9781616958848

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She earned her BA in English literature and an MA in Spanish literature at the University of Havana, and her PhD in Latin American literature at the University of New Mexico. Teresa is the author of twelve other works of fiction and three plays, and is the winner of the Rincón de la Victoria Award and a finalist for the Herralde Award. She lives in New Mexico.

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KO: Teresa, welcome to Mysteristas. What was your inspiration for Death Comes in Through the Kitchen?

TD: The initial spark was lit when my mom, who still lives in Cuba, started pestering me about preserving my grandmother’s recipes. My grandma had a culinary repertoire that included many typical Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo (rice and chicken cooked together), picadillo (ground beef with raisins) caldosa, etc., but she always gave a personal twist to them, like adding a bit of honey to the aforementioned rice and chicken dish. I knew that nobody would buy a cookbook written by me (I am not even a good cook, you can ask my husband!) so I added the recipes to a mystery I was writing at that time. In it, I intended to portray a different Cuba, one that didn’t revolve around life in tenements and jineteras, which are the main themes of many Cuban “dirty realism” novels. Here readers see another face of the island: college graduates who speak several languages, enterprising restaurateurs, B&B owners…

KO: What inspired to you to turn to writing crime fiction?

TD: Once I started writing some themes surfaced like challenging people’s preconceived ideas about Cuba—Yarmi doesn’t look like the classic curvaceous Cuban beauty, Havana isn’t at all like Matt imagined it—and exploring the role of women in mysteries and life. Strong female characters like Isabel, Lieutenant Martinez and even Yarmi are mujeres fuertes, fully fleshed and, in my opinion, representative of real Cuban women. I was happy to feature them in my first mystery.

KO: With Yarmi Cooks Cuban and the recipes, the book has familiar cozy elements, but it also deals with some issues that are not so cozy. How did you balance the cozier elements with the difficult issues?

TD: I tried to have un poquito de todo a little bit of everything. In a way, the novel could be used as a travelogue for people who want to visit Cuba but don’t know much about it. I tried to create a realistic setting and believable characters… and I did my research. Among my “sources” was a former Havana police officer now settled in Miami—she was my inspiration for Lieutenant Martinez. She agreed to help me on the condition that I would disguise her in the novel so nobody could recognize her. “And while you are at it, give me a big fondillo like the one I would have liked to have in real life,” she said. I did. I also wanted a gripping plot with the promise of suspense and surprise so I balanced all these elements the best I could.

KO: What is your favorite recipe from Yarmi Cooks Cuban? Can you reproduce the recipe for us?

TD: Of course! This is one of my favorites, la caldosa.

Here is the passage from the book:

It’s about time I devote a post to this nutritive and delicious dish. In case you don’t remember, La Caldosa is also the name of a dear friend’s restaurant, home of the amazing rice and chicken a la Isabel.

Caldosa is a mix of meats and vegetables, boiled together until all the flavors are brought out. Quite simple, though it takes a few hours to “gel.” Therefore, the first step is making sure that you have the whole morning, or afternoon, to spend in the kitchen.

Fill a caldero (the biggest pot you have at home) with water. Boil and add four pounds of pork. Any cut will do, but bones and heads provide a nice consistency. After half an hour, add the chicken: wings, breasts, thighs, and giblets. It doesn’t matter. Again, bones are good.

Simmer for thirty more minutes and add the vegetables: potato, pumpkin, yucca, taro, plantains, cassava, sweet potato, corn… Whatever you have—caldosa is very accepting. Keep boiling. All the tubers are expected to become soft.

Make sure to add water when it gets too low.

In the meantime, take out the pan and fry (in lard, of course, unless you want to be health conscious and use oil) two onions, one chopped garlic, and three bell peppers. Add cumin, oregano, and tomato paste. Let it simmer for a few minutes and pour the mixture into the caldero. Boil for another forty minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.

A common question: when do you know it is ready?

Answer: when the meat and vegetables are so tender that you don’t need a knife to cut them.

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Caldosa is one of the few Cuban dishes that have its very own song, composed by Rogelio Díaz Castillo and made popular by El Jilguero de Cienfuegos. I have danced to the caldosa rhythm many times!

KO: I loved the effect of hearing Yarmi’s voice from beyond death. The cooking blogs were a great device. Can you tell us about how you developed the character of Yarmi and what is was like trying to write her after she was dead? I must say, I’m sorry we won’t see Yarmi again….or will we?

TD: Yarmi was a key character but since she is dead at the beginning of the book I had to come up with a way to bring her back. Otherwise, why would readers care about her? Then it occurred to me that she should have a food blog—that would explain why she and Matt met online too. (I got the idea one evening when I was baking merenguitos.) I wanted readers to hear her voice and the blog first-person format was perfect for it. And it was important not to make her a total victim…Even in death, Yarmi still has power over Matt and others. I have thought of a prequel, something shorter, maybe a short story. The one who has come back, though, is Lieutenant Martinez. She is the main character in my novella Death by Smartphone, published in serialized form in English and Spanish in The Taos News.

KO: What are you working on now? Are you writing more mysteries? 

TD: I just finished another novel that features Padrino and Lieutenant Martinez. The title is Queen of Bones, a reference to an orisha, an Afro-Cuban deity named Oyá, the guardian of the cemeteries. I am also writing another novel in Spanish with a crime element in it, though not totally a mystery. I am afraid that if I don’t use my language I will end up saying “Voy a lunchear” or “Tengo que comprar groserías.” ¡Qué horror!

Thank you so much for interviewing me!

Thank you, Teresa.

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Praise for Death Comes in through the Kitchen

“Dovalpage’s first crime novel is a well-cooked stew of culture and cuisine . . . [A] stunningly unexpected conclusion.”
The Taos News

“[A] dazzling culinary mystery . . . Those expecting a traditional food cozy will be happily surprised.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“The parade of colorful characters helps Dovalpage paint a vivid portrait of late Castro-era Cuba.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Don’t let the title and included Cuban recipes mislead you into thinking this is a cozy—this novel shows the gritty side of Cuba.”
—Library Journal

“[Dovalpage] creates a mélange of clashing cultures, multilayered deception, even traditional Cuban recipes, that are both entertainment and a revealing exposé of how a strangled society bypasses laws to survive, and dare to enjoy, daily life.”
—Booklist

“From tantalizing recipes to irresistible scenes of seduction, Death Comes in through the Kitchen provides a sumptuous feast for readers, who will fly through the pages to uncover not only the culprit, but also to discover the true identity of the victim. In her debut crime novel, Teresa Dovalpage delivers her signature sass and bawdy wit, while rendering a bittersweet portrayal of Cuba in the last years of Castro’s reign.”
—Lorraine M. López, author of Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories and The Darling

“You’ve never read a mystery like this one! In Dovalpage’s Cuba, love, murder, food and politics form a deliciously dark and funny stew.”
—Chantel Acevedo, author of The Distant Marvels and The Living Infinite

 

Photo Credit: Chris Turner

 

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The Mesmerizer

Have you ever been sawed in half?        … I have.

When I was in grad school, I dated a guy who would dress me up in skimpy outfits, lock me in handcuffs, and put me in a box.

fishnets & handcuffs

No, not like that!
He was a magician and I was his assistant.

My kitten, Merlin, was his magic rabbit. He would pull Merlin from a hat to the oooohs and awwws of old ladies in nursing homes and children at birthday parties.

cat & bunny

For bigger occasions, we’d do a Houdini trick where I’d chain him up, put a bag over his head, and guide him into a giant wooden box. Then, eerie music and smoke would conceal his exit through a trap door in the box.  To the delight of the audience, he would run out from behind the curtain and open the box, where I’d taken his place, panting from exertion, mascara stinging my eyes.

Once, during half time at a college football game, he made a live tiger disappear.

photo of a tiger roaring

Luckily for me, we’d broken up by then.

Now, I can’t even remember his name. I often wonder if he’s a famous magician on a big stage in Vegas.

His disappearing act inspired my latest novel JACKAL.  Jessica James is sent on a mission by her dying mother to find the Mesmerizer, a washed up magician living in Vegas. Along the way, Jessica gets way more than she bargained for when she stumbles into a black market organ ring and learns secrets about her mother that will change her own life forever.

JACKAL, A Jessica James Mystery launches TODAY!!  To celebrate, it's on sale for .99 for the next week.  

NEW JACKAL cover

Join Jessica in Vegas, where stakes are high and everyone’s an illusionist. 

Help me conjure up a successful launch by getting yours now. 

Three Millennials, Two Family Mysteries …

and One Parti Yorkie.parti yorkieSin City won’t know what hit it.

 

Write Funny

Kelly Oliver, Award-winning author of the Jessica James Mysteries

When I was in graduate school (a million years ago), a guy invited me over to his place for a dinner date and served Chardonnay and Captain Crunch cereal. To be fair, he was living on a grad student stipend and had to economize, and Captain Crunch did double duty as the entree and the dessert. Had he served Oat Bran or Shredded Wheat, he would have had to spring for dessert…and it just wouldn’t have been as funny.

That night I learned two things: Captain Crunch is one of those things best left to childhood memories. And, cereal is about as romantic as cat litter.

wife feeding hubbie

Humor is tricky because sometimes it’s a matter of taste…. And not just when it comes to cereal. Some people get the joke, others don’t. Some people get it but think it’s stupid. And some people are just plain offended.

But, done well, humor is worth the risk.

What makes a story funny?

Funny words.

I’ve read that words with “K” sounds (Captain Crunch) and hard consonant sounds are funny. Maybe that’s why when I was born, my parents named me Kelly. It’s true that some words are funnier than others. Colonoscopy is funny—unless you’ve ever had one—Endoscopy, not so much. Cucumber, Twinkie, and Okra are funnier than Bread, Butter or Jam.

Oddball lists.

In a list, an oddball can be funny. She was well versed in the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche and Winnie the Pooh. His favorite desserts are Black Forest Torte, Cherry Gateau Basque, and Pop Tarts.

adorable animal breed close up

Funny Comparisons.

Surprising comparisons, metaphors, and similes can be funny. “With cleavage so deep it could tutor philosophy” (Harlan Coben). She stuck to him like a tick on a rangy deer. She stuck to him like a sequin on a ball gown. He stuck to her like a Velcro on a training bra.

Are there any issues that are off limits to comedy?

A couple of years ago, I was pitching my first novel, WOLF in New York City, and when I told a group of young women authors about the subplot and themes of date rape, party rape, and rape drugs, and I said it was a humorous mystery, some of them were appalled. They didn’t see how rape could ever be funny.  Obviously, I agree.  Rape can never be funny.  Books, on the other hand (even books that take on serious topics like rape), can be funny.  In fact, humor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it.  Think of John’s Green’s treatment of cancer inThe Fault in Our Stars.

 Comedy = Tragedy + Time.

Humor releases tension and anxiety, which can help the pacing of your suspense novel. Humor makes it easier to deal with difficult issues. Mark Twain says, “the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” And self-deprecating humor can be some of the most cathartic to write. Having a sense of humor can help get through the darkest days.

Use Humor to Tell the Truth.

Mark Twain also calls humor “the good-natured side of truth.” Humor can lighten the mood of your story. It can help you modulate the pace. But it can also help you give the reader new insights. Funny anecdotes are most effective when they have a deeper meaning.

My husband is from Puerto Rico. He likes to tell the story of his encounter with a giant rat in his college dorm. It was the middle of the night and he’d gotten up to pee. As he made his way down the hall to the bathroom, the huge rat ran across his path. He freaked out and called campus security. When the officer arrived, he asked, “How’d you get into Yale? Haven’t you seen a possum before?” In his telling, the possum takes on a deeper meaning and becomes a symbol for his own status as a fish out of water.

Possum

You can see why I married him instead of Captain Crunch.

Who needs drugs?

New studies show that laughter triggers endogenous opioid release in the brain.  Hey, endogenous opioid release, that sounds funny… even without a K sound.

Use humor to add some fiber to your story!

laughter-laugh-fun-mom.jpg

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, and JACKAL. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. Look for JACKAL, A Jessica James Mystery September 25th. Why wait? It’s available for preorder now and on sale for only $1.99 until launch day!

When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.

Learn more about Kelly and her books.