A sweet story of murder in the Klein Karoo

Review: Vivien Horler

The Milk Tart Murders – A Tannie Maria mystery, by Sally Andrew (Umuzi/ Penguin Random House)

Jirre but Tannie Maria has a sweet tooth.

It starts on page one with a lemon drizzle cake (okay, I quite like a lemon drizzle cake, the tarter the better), creamy fudge on page three, red velvet cake on page 16 (interestingly, Tannie Maria discovers, the recipe has vinegar in the batter as well as buttermilk), and then it goes on, to milk tart with naartjie peel, spekboom ice cream, milkshakes, soetkoekies, chocolate fridge cake…

Personally I prefer tea and homemade fish paste toast for breakfast to coffee and lemon drizzle cake, but I digress.

The Milk Tart Murders is the fourth in Sally Andrews’s series involving her amateur sleuth Tannie Maria, but this is the first I’ve read. I found it charming, written with a light touch despite all the blood and mayhem, and it reminded me in tone of the Alexander McCall Smith detective novels set in Botswana.

And it has the advantage over McCall Smith’s novels of all the recipes at the end. Using this novel, when you’ve finished the story you can make your own red velvet cake with vinegar and buttermilk, or marmalade rusks.

Like several of the earlier books in the series, this one is set in Ladismith in the Klein Karoo. Tannie Maria, the survivor of an abusive marriage, is in a relationship with Henk, a local detective and widower. They’ve been together for nine months and all is going sweetly.

Tannie Maria makes a living writing a “love advice and recipe column” for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Typical of the letters she gets is one from “Shy Girl”, who likes a guy in her office a lot, and who wants to attract his attention without making a fuss.

That’s easy. Tannie Maria sends Shy Girl her recipe for creamy fudge, which “looks very simple, but when he tastes it, he will close his eyes and something inside him will melt”.

After he’s opened his eyes Shy Girl will know, from the look he gives her, if he feels the same way.

“Have a small packet of the fudge ready, with a ribbon on it. If he gives you the right look you can hand it to him… Don’t put more than four pieces in the packet because it’s good to leave him wanting more.”

Tannie Maria and Henk go to a screening of a classic movie – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – at an antique shop called Oupa Frik’s Fantastiques. Oupa Frik is elderly and becoming increasingly irascible, but his screenings are popular.

At the end, when the reel should be switched off and the lights come on, nothing happens. Helmina, Oupa Frik’s helper and shop assistant, goes into the projection room and screams. “Hy’s dood. Oupa Frik, he’s dead.”

It turns out Oupa Frik has made a number of wills, leaving all he has to various relatives including his former wife, his children and his nephew Tom. The estate includes his house, which is earmarked for a local children’s home, and antiques in the shop which are rumoured to include some fantastic and valuable treasure.

While the investigation into Oupa Frik’s death begins, Henk invites Tannie Maria to his home – the one he shared with his beloved but late wife Norma, and which is full of her belongings and her cookery books – for dinner.

They are to be joined by a former police friend of Henk’s, who turns out to be female and something of a poppie. She has brought supper including a red velvet cake, made according to Norma’s own recipe. And it emerges it’s Norma’s birthday too.

An upset Tannie Maria flees into the night, wanting no more to do with Henk, but in a small town like Ladismith they keep bumping into each other, especially when they’re both investigating – officially and unofficially – the same murder.

All sorts of twists and turns follow, including a scary moment when Tannie Maria and her journalist colleague Jess are nearly buried alive at gunpoint.

This is a delightful read, and the evocation of the beauty of the Klein Karoo, the vistas, the birds, the thorn trees and the sunlight on the mountains is truly magnetic.

And there are all those recipes.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *