Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review of The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu (2017, Constable)

1936, Singapore. Sixteen year old Su Lin is coming to the end of her time at a mission school. She has ambitions to be a reporter, but her first step to achieving that goal is to avoid being married off to a much older man selected by her uncle. Her teacher has arranged for her to be the housekeeper for Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy. At their initial meeting LeFroy is called away to investigate a suspicious death at the residence of the Acting Governor of the colony, taking Su Lin with him. The nanny has fallen to her death from a second floor balcony. Su Lin quickly spots some oddities with the death and persuades LeFroy to let her offer to replace the nanny, stay at the residence, and try to see what she can find out. He reluctantly agrees, though his enthusiasm dips when a second death occurs. Su Lin though is determined to protect the daughter she is minding and solve the case.

This is the first in a cosy series set in Singapore in the late 1930s. The story is a traditional big house mystery in the vein of the golden age of crime transplanted to the colony, with the majority of the tale taking place in the Acting Governor’s residence investigating the suspicious death of the nanny. Although the police are involved, the primary investigator is Su Lin Chen, a teenager who is asked to temporarily replace the nanny until another can be hired. Su Lin is observant, smart, quick-witted, and kind and is not going to let her polio-crippled leg hold her back. Grand-daughter of a major trader and money-lender, she’s determined not be married off to an associate of her uncle, and has ambitions to make something of her life. Despite the colonial attitudes and racism of the governor’s family she quickly fits into the household as she hunts for clues and uncovers secrets. Yu spins an engaging, well paced whodunit tale that has several twists and turns and leads to tense, though not overly surprising denouement. There’s a reasonable sense of place, though the focus on the residence and domestic relations means the colonial context and island society is somewhat in the background. The charm of the story, however, is Su Lin and the golden age feel of the tale. Definitely a series I’ll be continuing with.

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