While I wait for the various teas I have ordered to arrive, I turn to another favourite past-time—crime fiction. I am beginning to wonder at the growing closeness between tea and cosy mysteries—I found a podcast, a YouTube channel and several blogs that bring the two together. Sure, they are also funny and heartwarming. Maybe they are comforting in some way, a bit like tea?
Also, so many of them are set in tea rooms. I am thinking of Laura Childs and her Tea Shop Mysteries, with the dog named Earl Grey, which has two new titles this year—Lemon Curd Killer and Honey Drop Dead. And Jesse Q. Sutanto, who wrote Dial A for Aunties, where she threw in a dead body because she wasn’t having much fun writing it; it went on to win the 2021 Comedy Women in Print Prize. Her forthcoming book, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers, features a teashop.
This week, I am reading Amanda Hampson’s The Tea Ladies, which has just been released. Set in 1950s’ Sydney, it opens with a mystery woman in the window of an unused building. It’s followed by a fire, a murder and other twists in the plot. And of course, the tea ladies.
What are a group of tea ladies called? A batch? asks a character. Cosy, replies Hazel, the protagonist, a cosy of tea ladies.
Together, the cosy, all little old ladies, set out to solve the murder. Their days are focused on arranging the tea tray and knowing how everyone likes their tea. And Hazel dabbles in reading the leaves just before she washes them.
The cover resembles Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club books, probably because they share a genre. It’s a prolific genre but I don’t think it’s overdone just yet. It’s fun to see the stereotype of old folks changing into sharp-eyed, keen, unexpectedly sprightly and nosy-yet-lovable sorts who will still stop to have a cup of tea.
Hampson says she hit upon the idea of tea ladies as sleuths when she saw an old photograph of a tea lady where someone had commented—if anyone knows where the body is buried, it’s the tea lady! In the book, the protagonist thinks that “if being a tea lady has taught her anything it’s that human beings are strange and unpredictable creatures who regularly act against their own best interest”. Ah well, what tea we drink probably says plenty about us too.
I don’t read the tea leaves but I will suggest tea to pair with some crime novels. Green tea or a tisane for a cosy mystery—it’s light and easy and great to unwind with. An oolong for a complex, layered crime that unravels slowly, like Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series. A bracing black tea for the Cormoran Strike series by J. K. Rowling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Nordic crimes, even literary mysteries like Who Is Maud Dixon? (Alexandra Andrews, 2021). And for perennial favourites like Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, chai, for one classic needs another.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.