Our Reading Lives

How Vivien Chien’s Noodle Shop Mysteries Made Me Love Cozy Mysteries Again

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Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

Ever since I chanced upon the works of Joan Lowry Nixon as a child, I have loved murder mysteries. I loved the high drama and high stakes, the puzzles and clues that have to be put together. And that love has continued to this day where murder mysteries probably constitute the majority of my reading. But my love for cozies has not been as consistent. I stopped reading them for the most part for about a decade. Instead, I gravitated towards detective fiction by authors like Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raymond Chandler.

But then I came across Vivien Chien’s Death by Dumpling one day at the bookstore. It was my way back into the genre. Now I love cozies once again, thanks to the Noodle Shop Mysteries.

The Break Up

Like many murder mystery fans, I read a lot of Agatha Christie, whose books have traditionally been called “cozies.” Almost everything I could get my hands on. Initially I felt lucky that she was such a prolific writer that I could just keep reading and reading. But then I started to realize that I might be getting too good at figuring out who the murderer was. I read enough of them to make it really easy for me to figure out whodunnit. So that took a lot of fun out of it.

I was also bothered by the avoidance of substantive issues in the series I read. One of the hallmarks of cozies is there in the name. It’s meant to be comfortable. No graphic violence, no sex, no swearing. Generally, these books are meant to be upbeat and happy, and not dwell too much on the darker sides of life (aside from murder, of course). 

But with some series from a few decades ago, it feels that they were taking that too far. It seems like those authors erased some intrinsic facts in their works. To use an example that I made up, it would be like talking about 1950s Germany without any mention of the Nazis and the violence they wrought upon the country and the rest of the world. Or like setting a series in Ancient Rome without any mention that there were enslaved people. As a historian, it got really annoying. And given the battles today over books, it seemed quite problematic.

But part of it came from my own prejudices about genre fiction. I felt that I shouldn’t read “these” types of books, instead I should be spending my time reading “substantive” literature. So eventually cozies were out and literary mysteries were in. (Also, I could have taken a class on murder mysteries in college but didn’t for the same reason. It’s one of many regrets from my college years.)

How I learned to love again

Back in 2018, I remember browsing in the aisles of a certain chain bookstore when I stumbled across Death by Dumpling. I loved food, and I especially loved food mysteries. I also had a lot of stress and I wanted something fun. So after picking it up off the shelf a few times, I decided that I needed to take a chance again.

Thank goodness I made that leap of faith. Inside, I met Lana Lee, the amatuer detective at the heart of the novel, who was so funny and relatable. She was a little lost in life, having quit her job and broken up with her boyfriend and returning to the family restaurant, but she wasn’t down and out. She was feisty and caring for her family and friends, even when they drove her nuts. Plus, she had a dog named Kikkoman, after the soy sauce brand, and a giant love for donuts.

Death by Dumpling cover

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

It was fun following Lee as she tried to clear her and her family’s name in the book. I loved getting a glimpse into her life, the restaurant, and the people/businesses in the Asia Village. It was exactly what I needed. And so the dam broke, I eagerly awaited additional books in the series. And then I kept finding more and more.

Now cozies are the majority of my reading and I’m better for it. I love these worlds that cozy writers open up to me, whether it’s owning a bookshop, pet grooming, or running a restaurant. And I’m happy that I was able to move away from the stupid idea that I shouldn’t read certain types of books. If they make me happy, then I should read them. Plus these newer cozies may have a general rosier view on life but they do deal with substantive issues. For instance, recent cozy series I’ve read discuss issues like institutional racism and the housing crisis.

The Love That Keeps On Growing

Hot and Sour Suspects cover

Hot and Sour Suspects by Vivien Chien

And Vivien Chien keeps it going with each delightful addition to the series. But something struck me very personally. In her most recent book, Hot and Sour Suspects, she writes in her foreword about her diagnosis and treatment for cancer. It was moving that she felt she needed to share this with her readers. But the timing of it was uncanny. I had saved the book for my first infusion of new medication for my Crohn’s. I remember reading that foreword while waiting to be called into the treatment room for an hour and feeling extremely touched. While I go to cozies when I need some pure joy, this was another level of the right book at the right moment.

So thank you to Vivien Chien for bringing me back to cozies and for sharing challenges with us.

The next title in the series, Misfortune Cookie, is supposed to come out next year. Now back enjoying all the Agatha Christie mysteries, and am finally rectifying my regret and planning on taking a class on Native American crime fiction through the Newberry Library this fall.

Want more discussion of cozies? Here’s a thoughtful essay on new cozies. Here’s another essay on the increasing diversity in cozy mysteries.