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by Vivien Chien
St Martin's Paperbacks, February 2020
ISBN: 1250228328

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There's something rather more sweet than sour about EGG DROP DEAD, the fourth novel in Vivien Chien's Noodle Shop Murder Series, starring the acerbic, restauranteur, amateur sleuth, and pug fancier Lana Lee. This reviewer hasn't read the first three novels, but EGG DROP DEAD made them look like appealing appetizers. Beyond the bad titular puns and twee cover art lurks a powerful narrative voice and insightful commentary about the transcultural experiences of a Chinese-American millennial.

Lana is off to her first catering job, courtesy of the older generation of her restaurant-owning family, reluctantly dressed in a traditional Chinese outfit that she's personalized with some impractical, nearly torturous European-American shoes. The party is hosted by a woman with a harrowing past—Wendy Feng, who automatically alienates the reader and Lana both by verbally abusing her young nanny, Alice, in front of her party guests. When Alice turns up dead in Feng's glamorous swimming pool—in a wry reference to Sunset Boulevard?—Wendy is decidedly not ready for her close-up. However, Lana insists upon giving the situation a very close look—especially after she accidentally finds a cache of compromising information.

EGG DROP DEAD is absolutely a paint-by-numbers cosy, down to the pristine, obscured corpse, erstwhile amateur sleuth actually believing that she can solve the crime better than the police can, various others abetting her in that belief, and abundant lingering on comfort food and cute pets. This one even kind of combines those tropes, by the foregrounding of an adorable pug named after a popular brand of soy sauce that garnishes the tables of American-Chinese restaurants across the continent. But there's authenticity lurking in the melodrama. "I worked hard to get where I am, and I won't be [a] pariah," insists an older woman, who, like many of the Lee family's Chinese-American community, has struggled desperately to make a life for herself in spite of multigenerational trauma. So has the murder victim Alice, who had joined Wendy Feng's household imagining that as her nanny she would find a secure and even ideal way of life. Incidentally, this reviewer loved Lana's sister's possibly allusive name—Anna May, like Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who starred alongside Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, battled Hollywood Orientalism and xenophobia throughout her career, and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, essentially for her love of her immigrant family.

One minor quibble this reviewer had with the book is that the millennial heroine and intrepid sleuth has little interest in and less reliance upon social media, which you'd think would be a great source of entertainment and information for a busybody and solver-of-mysteries. The compromising information she finds is stored on a medium that was cutting edge in 2006. This struck a wrong note, but the rest of the novel's witty dialogue, page-turning charms, and realistic cultural navigations more than make up for it. This reviewer looks forward to what Lana Lee will do next.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, November 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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