Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Author Interview)

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in New Mexico. She has published ten novels (six in Spanish and four in English) and three collections of short stories. Her first culinary mystery Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in Havana and features Padrino, a santero-detective. Her second mystery, Queen of Bones, was also published by Soho Crime in November 2019 and includes elements of Santeria and the Chinese presence in Havana.
Death Comes in through the Kitchen looks like a great mystery and crime thriller.  How many books are planned for the series?
Soho Crime’s Havana Mystery series has four books—up to now. Death Comes in through the Kitchen was followed by Queen of Bones, which is fresh out the oven (November 2019). It has some of the same characters, like Lieutenant Marlene Martinez and Padrino, the santero-detective that solves the case in the first novel. The other two will be released in 2020. Death of a Telenovela Star (June 2020) features again Marlene Martinez—the story takes place mostly on a cruise ship, not in Havana, though. The fourth is Death under the Perseids, which happens both aboard a cruise ship and in Havana.
Is each book standalone or do they need to be read in order?
They all are standalone but if you read them in order, you’ll see how the characters evolve. For example, Marlene Martinez goes from a National Revolutionary Police lieutenant in Havana in the first two books to the owner of a bakery called La Bakeria Cubana in Miami in the third and fourth novels.
There are thousands of mystery novels released every year. What makes yours unique?
My books, besides being mysteries, are Cuba travelogues. Born and raised in the island (I lived there thirty years) I can offer my English-language readers an insider’s perspective, from accurate descriptions of paladares (private restaurants) to the way casas particulares (private accommodations similar to B&Bs) operate. You’ll get a good picture of contemporary Cuba after reading any of my novels. Let me be your guide!
Why did you decide to become a writer?
Both my parents were avid readers so books were part of my life since childhood. Since I was what you would call “a nerd” (rata de biblioteca, library rat in Spanish) the transition from reader to writer was smooth and almost inevitable. I don’t remember a particular moment when I decided to be a writer, but even as a teenager I was writing short stories and enjoying the process.
How did you come up with the story in Death Comes in through the Kitchen?
It all started when my mom, who still lives in Cuba, asked me to preserve my grandma’s recipes in a cookbook. I told her no way, I am not a good cook—you can ask my husband. At her insistence, I ended up including the recipes in a novel I was working on. It was about an American journalist who goes to Cuba to marry a younger woman, based on a real-life case. I then added a bit of death and drama and the result was “a culinary mystery,” a term I didn’t even know back then.
You mean readers can actually follow your recipes and cook Cuban dishes?
Absolutely! They will learn how to make arroz con pollo (rice and chicken with all the ingredients cooked together, paella-style), picadillo (ground beef with raisins), a kind of stew known as caldosa, desserts like tocinillo (like a flan, but yummier) and many more.
Did anything stick out as particularly challenging when writing Death Comes in through the Kitchen?
I ate way too much in the process. I made all the recipes prior to their inclusion in the book and gained several pounds before it was over. But my husband was very happy! His favorite dish turned out to be the caldosa because it has different kinds of meat and lots of vegetables—un poquito de todo, a little bit of everything.
What do you like to do when not writing?
I have a fulltime job at New Mexico Junior College where I teach Spanish and ESL. My husband and I love to go on cruises, which inspired Death of a Telenovela Star and Death under the Perseids. The shenanigans that go on aboard a cruise ship can provide plenty of material for several books.
Where can readers find out more about your work?