If you enjoy your supermarket paperback murder mysteries with a side dish of shrimp Har Gow, “Dim Sum Dead” by Jerrilyn Farmer will be a moveable feast.
“Dim Sum Dead” (2001, Avon Books, HarperCollins, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 248 pages) has everything – dead Hollywood stars, live Hollywood has-beens, a Chinese fortune teller, dark secrets and steamed octopus balls, all inextricably linked to the complex Chinese game of mah-jongg.
(For the uninitiated, mah-jongg is an ancient game that involves anywhere from 136 to 144 small, inscribed tiles which, in the proper order, will complete a winning combination of incomprehensible characters. Nobody actually knows how to play mah-jongg. Winning is mostly a matter of convincing other players that you know more than they do …)
Throw in a sinister gardener, a no-nonsense police lieutenant, a couple of happening Hollywood directors and an attorney who specializes in “alternative law,” and you’ve got an obvious candidate for Best Supermarket Paperback Mah-Jongg Murder Mystery of 2001.
The tale revolves around the frenetic lifestyle of caterer-to-the-stars Madeline Bean, owner of Mad Bean Events, and her partner, Wesley Westcott.
Trouble starts when Wesley discovers an antique mah-jongg set hidden inside a walled-up fireplace while renovating the Hollywood mansion of the late Dickie McBride, a silver screen heartthrob who ended his career with such little known gems as “Kangaroo Planet.”
(Dickie had been up for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars” but turned it down.)
Pleased with his discovery, Wesley hot foots it over to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market where Madeline is, coincidentally enough, selecting supplies for the weekly meeting of the Sweet and Sour Mah-Jongg Club.
Inside the old game cabinet, the pair find the requisite mah-jongg tiles, plus a sinister-looking Chinese dagger and a small red book.
Before they can take a closer look at the contents, though, a nearby chard shopper pushes Madeline out of the way, grabs the mah-jongg case and disappears in the crowd.
Madeline eventually retrieves the game cabinet, but the little red book is conspicuously missing.
It’s obvious that the strong-arm chard shopper wasn’t at the farmer’s market by accident and it’s pretty clear what he was after when he snatched Dickie McBride’s formerly walled-up-in-the-fireplace mah-jongg set, but after that things get a little muddy.
What, exactly, was in Dickie’s little red book? Much to Madeline’s chagrin, just about everybody in Hollywood seems to have some idea of what the book contained, but nobody’s talking. At least not to her.
Dickie’s young widow, Quita, is positively frantic when she finds out that small red book is missing from the mah-jongg cabinet.
She isn’t frantic for long, though.
Toe-tag time, amigos.
What secret does the old mah-jongg set conceal that’s worth dying for?
The answer awaits you in “Dim Sum Dead,” along with a totally killer recipe for Singapore slings …
Originally published December 2, 2001.