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The title character in "Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers" is like Jane Austen's Emma if Emma were a believer in the healing powers of tea and if she actually knew what was best for everyone instead of incorrectly thinking she did.

The elderly owner of a dusty tea shop gets to exercise her talents for matchmaking, child care and murder-solving when a corpse turns up in her San Francisco store. Vera befriends four strangers who drop in soon afterwards (including the victim's brother and wife), serving them black pepper chicken even as she sounds them out for possible homicidal tendencies.

Shut out of the life of her adult son, despite attempts to fix him up with a wife and nutritious meal plans, Vera is lonely but she doesn't feel sorry for herself. A big part of her charm is how effortlessly she sneaks into her new pals' lives, finding space to simultaneously mother and suspect them. Her secret weapon? Beach picnics, with steaming dumplings, saucy vegetables and savory stir-fries emerging from her bottomless hamper.

Jesse Q. Sutanto's novel isn't really a mystery — the murder is solved even though the clues are not in place for us to figure it out — but her Vera is an indelible comic creation who will hopefully pop up in many future books.

Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers

By: Jesse Q. Sutanto.

Publisher: Berkley, 352 pages, $17.