The veteran playwright Ovidia Yu’s move into historical crime fiction is so good, it’s criminal, finds Lucy Bryson.
Let’s begin with The Frangipani Tree Mystery, the first instalment in Ovidia Yu’s wonderful Crown Colony Crime Mysteries series.
Set in 1930s colonial Singapore, this fabulous whodunit introduces the plucky, would-be sleuth Su Lin, a sassy teenage orphan with big aspirations. Su Lin dreams of becoming a journalist but settles for a housekeeping job with Thomas LeFroy, the local chief of police, to avoid being married off by her relatives.
But when an Irish nanny dies in suspicious circumstances at Government House, the British governor’s mansion on nearby Frangipani Hill (think Downton Abbey, Asian-style), Su Lin takes her place as LeFroy’s eyes and ears on the inside. When a second murder occurs, Su Lin must help LeFroy bring the killer to justice before other lives – hers included – are taken.
Every great detective story needs its plot twists, red herrings and double-crossing characters, and The Frangipani Tree Mystery delivers them in spades. (Some readers may correctly guess the identity of the killer before the big reveal at the end, but not before rambling up any number of garden paths).
But it’s the language, dialogue and characters – and in particular Su Lin’s dry humour and witty observations - that makes this book so thoroughly endearing. Take one example: Su Lin is polio survivor with a limp – a “bad luck girl”, according to her Uncle Chen, who believes she should marry anyone willing to take her on. Su Lin, (the Singaporean version of Bridget Jones), explains, “Uncle Chen’s wife Shen-Shen worried loudly that because of the friends I had made in the Mission School I would end up marrying some relative of Parshanti’s (bad because Indian) or Grace (worse because Christian) and disgracing the whole family, ancestors and descendants included.”
Then there is Yu’s terrific sense of time and place. She creates vivid sensory depictions of a land that may well be unfamiliar to many readers, and touches on politically-sensitive issues such as women’s rights and race relations, without resorting to brash rhetoric or over simplification of complex societal issues. Su Lin’s teacher, Miss Nessa, for instance, steps in to save her from the arranged marriage: “No! No! No! No! No!”, she yells at Uncle Chen. “You ignorant, backwards man—you can’t just marry Su Lin off! She has her School Certificate! Don’t you see what a waste that would be? This is 1936! Women have rights! Women have responsibilities!”
Yes, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, originally published in 2017, is a wonderful detective novel. But it’s also the book that introduces one of the most likeable heroines in modern literature and for that reason alone should be on everyone’s Must Read list.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu is out now on Amazon UK in paperback, priced £8.46, and as an eBook, priced £5.99.
The Betel Nut Tree Mystery, by Ovidia Yu
Su Lin, the loveable sleut, returns with a bang in The Betel Nut Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu’s second book in the charming Crown Colony Crime Mysteries series.
When news breaks that local playboy the Honourable Victor Glossop will be marrying the glamourous American widow, Nicole Covington, Su Lin – an aspiring journalist – plans to cover the story. But when Glossop is murdered in bizarre circumstances on the day of his wedding, his body covered in betel nut juice, Su Lin finds herself in the thick of another gripping investigation alongside the enigmatic Inspector Le Froy.
Suspicion falls on the “Black Widow” herself, Nicole Covington, whose previous suitors have also met with an untimely end. But best man Kenneth Mulliner and the bride’s own father also have a motive for murder. Even British-born Le Froy finds himself under investigation as allegations of indiscretions back in the UK come to light.
When further deaths occur, nobody knows where to point the finger of blame. Su Lin and Le Froy must look past the headlines and the gossip to uncover the truth before the killer strikes again.
Although Yu provides a few clues as to the murder’s identity, there are enough twists and red herrings to make this what I call a ‘knotty whodunnit’ - one that isn’t easy to unravel.
Like The Frangipani Tree Mystery before it, the Betel Nut Tree Mystery is more than just a great crime story - it’s an impeccably-researched, historically-accurate window into 1930s Singapore (it’s set against the background of King Edward III’s abdication to marry the American heiress, Wallis Simpson).
Throughout, Yu raises pertinent questions about gender and race politics. Fascism is rearing its ugly head across the globe, for instance, and Su Lin finds herself taking on mundane domestic tasks. She has the glamourous title of Inspector LeFroy’s Secretarial Assistant and Cultural Liaison officer, but admits the role really involves “mopping floors, like a servant girl or spinster aunt. The Detective Shack, as we called it, was in a modern brick building with two floors, but rain blew in under the doors and around badly fitted windows.”
Singaporeans’ servitude to their colonial ‘superiors’ - and by turn the locals’ feelings of superiority towards Indians and other immigrants – is also touched upon. In fact, many of the characters in the book find themselves the victim of prejudice at one time or another, and each deals with the problem in their own way.
Once again, though, Yu makes astute points cleverly and with deftness of touch. The Betel Nut Tree Mystery is a breezy, fun read, filled with complex characters who cannot be neatly categorised as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.
With a third Su Lin story – The Paper Bark Tree Mystery – set to follow, Yu has created a skilfully-written, subversive crime series that looks set to win her armies of new fans across the globe. Highly recommended reading.
The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu is available now on Amazon UK in paperback, priced £5.08 and £5.99 as an eBook.
Exclusive Q&A with Ovidia Yu
Ovidia Yu’s refusal to shy away from controversial issues makes her one of Singapore’s most successful – and most exciting – exports. We grab five minutes with the veteran playwright to discuss gender and sexual equality, inspirations, and her eagerly-awaited next book.
Q: How does this new series differ from your previous crime series, the Aunty Lee books?
A: The biggest difference is the Crown Colony Crime series is historical. And the protagonist, of course. They’re coming at things from opposite directions. Aunty Lee is a busybody who believes once she knows what and how a person eats, she has them pretty much figured out. She thinks she knows it all and that everyone will see she’s right, once she has explained things to them.
Whereas Su Lin, balancing two very different cultures, is very aware how little people understand each other. While she is fascinated by trying to figure people out, she doesn’t expect to be understood by them.
Q: The Crown Colony Crime series has a politically pertinent edge. Did you set out to use the series as a vehicle of information?
A: No…and yes. I wrote it as entertainment, something accessible and entertaining that can be picked up and read for fun. But I love picking up little nuggets of information as I read, so I tried to recreate the feel, the facts of the time as accurately as I could. Just like I would rather travel to foreign places to learn geography than study facts in a textbook, I would rather travel back in time through fiction to learn history!
And in the course of research and writing I keep coming across fascinating (at least to me!) facts and attitudes I’ve tried to share.
Several of the characters are historically real though I’ve changed their names!
These books present murders against the background of a looming global catastrophe. So murder is a relatively ‘small’ problem. But it’s the only problem they can do anything about, so they do what they can to solve it. It feels a little like how we’re all tackling life these days.
Q: How did you decide upon the 1930s as the time period for the books? What made this such an important time in Singaporean history?
A: I find the period between the two World Wars a very interesting period. Singapore wasn’t as affected by the First World War, but in the years leading up to the Second, we were supposed to be the ‘Gibraltar of the East’. We had this huge naval port, but no ships, because it was built for the use of the British Navy. And we had Inspector General Rene Onraet who repeatedly warned the presence of Japanese spies in Singapore suggested they were planning something. It’s so ironic that looking back after the terrible years of Japanese Occupation we see he was right, but he was laughed at for having an obsession over the Japanese at the time.
It was a time when, to survive in Singapore, you had to accept unquestioningly that the British were right about everything. And it was a time when the British were discovering they were not invincible. The British Empire wasn’t going to last forever even if the sun never set on it.
Also, it’s a timely issue because next year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819. 2019 is our Bicentennial but we’re not sure how to talk about it. Some people say we shouldn’t celebrate an old imperialist coming to ‘claim’ us.
'Praising Raffles acknowledges a white man’s superiority over repressed colonial subjects; a thorny subject’ says Neil Humphreys. (Neil’s a respected Singapore writer but he’s also white enough to play Raffles in Talking Cock the Movie—look it up if you like — so you see how it’s complicated for people here?)
Singapore didn’t fare as badly as some other colonies because we were too small and bereft of natural resources to be destroyed by arbitrary taxes.
But I would like to celebrate William Farquhar, who spent a lot more time in Singapore than Raffles did. That’s why I renamed the Raffles Hotel the Farquhar Hotel in the books.
Q: Su Lin is a fabulous protagonist. Is she based on anyone you know?
A: Yes, but with a big ‘but’! When I started writing, Su Lin was very loosely based on my grandmother, who once wanted to be a writer, to write newspaper articles. She would have been around Su Lin’s age. But she was a good girl, so she married and became a school teacher instead. This was all a little like writing what her fantasy life may have been.
But she’s also bits of who I would like to be and bits of her come from people I admire. Like Ida Tarbell, investigative journalist, biographer, one of the pioneers of investigative journalism, not just female pioneers. I’m sure she would have been a role model for Su Lin, she still is for me.
Q: How important to you was it to have a strong female lead character? Do you think the books would be very different if they were told from a male perspective?
A: That would depend on the man telling the story! People in the old days here thought it more important to educate sons than daughters, so there are more books of the time written from the male perspective. Then again, I believe more women are storytellers, so it’s hard to tell how many of the stories written down by those men were first told to them by their mothers and nannies from a female perspective.
And then how many of them were writing under gender neutral pseudonyms.
Does it make a difference who is telling the story? Of course. But I don’t know that gender is the biggest factor there. As in real life, stories change when you look at them from a different point of view.
Everyone has a backstory and prejudices they’re not aware of. All these are going to colour the story they tell.
But to go back to your question - it just felt natural for me to write Su Lin’s story, and she’s very much the centre of it.
It feels like there’s a whole complete world in the story world and I’m discovering things as I shine lights into corners, but Su Lin is the friend I’ve spent the most time talking to in this world.
Q: The Tapioca Root Mystery is the next in the series. Can we expect more Crown Colony Crime stories after that? What’s next for Su Lin?
A: Oh, I hope so! So many more trees I want to write about. The Trumpet Tree for instance. It has large trumpet shaped pink or white flowers. What is amazing is that all the trumpet trees in Singapore flower in unison. Then the ground is a pink and white carpet of blossoms. It must be terrible for the sweepers but it’s an amazing sight.
Q: The first three books all take trees or roots as their theme – how are trees and nature pertinent to the themes of the book?
A: Singapore is a very small island with a population that is 100% urbanised, so trees are very important to us. Did you know that if you build a new development here, you have to replace the greenery you dig up? It seems natural to me, but I believe there aren’t such laws in larger countries. And of course, most countries are larger than we are.
Since Singapore sits on the equator, the sun is very hot and monsoon rains very heavy, so trees for shelter are important. You can go to trees.sg at https://www.nparks.gov.sg/trees to look up the trees, especially the Heritage Trees. You can locate a particular tree you’re curious about or identify a tree that you are looking at. Plus, you can look up when a tree is due for a ‘haircut’ or pruning.
Trees feel very relevant to my history mysteries because some of the trees, especially the heritage trees, were around in the 1930’s where the books take place. They are a living link to our past.
And, on a more personal level, my grandmother loved trees. I remember her saying ‘The trees are so wonderful!’ no matter where we were.
Q: Scene-setting and a sense of history are clearly strong aspects of the books. As you already have a very large readership in Singapore, do you think the stories will encourage international readers to take an increased interest in Singapore and Singaporean history?
A: Oh, I hope so. And even more, I hope the books spur readers on to write their own books too.
I have a German expat neighbour who sends my books back to her family and friends in Germany to give them an idea what life in Singapore is like. I know because she starts to worry about October whether there will be a new book to send home for Christmas!
Q: Su Lin has a very dry wit as a narrator. How important was it to write with a sense of humour about some quite serious historical events?
A: I think it’s important, even necessary, to face present day as well as historical events with a sense of humour. Otherwise it’s too easy to despair and decide the world is doomed. But then you realise that people during the two World Wars had it much worse—and they had to deal with polio and TB and women dying in childbirth… but somehow, they ploughed through and here we are today.
Yes, there are major challenges today, but we have all the experience of those who came before us, if only we remember to look to them!
Q: Finally, who have been your greatest influences and inspirations as a writer? Do you read much crime fiction yourself?
A: Oh yes! Reading is probably the only thing I love more than writing! I read tons of crime fiction and other fiction and non-fiction, but I’m not sure who my greatest influences are. Like PG Wodehouse said, if you put meat into sausage maker, sooner or later it comes out as sausage. I see myself as a sausage making machine and everything that goes into me—Ann Cleeves, JD Robb, Rhys Bowen, Keigo Higashino, but also air plant and cactus care guides, healthy dog food recipe books and that poor French au pair murdered in London—it’s all meat for the sausage machine.
Sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing a mystery, I find it difficult to read crime fiction because my mind won’t stop churning and wanting to pinch ideas, so I’ve been trying to read French (with a dictionary) and discovered Danielle Thiéry.
Truth is, there’s never enough time to read. I usually try to head for bed by 8:30 so that I can read till midnight and still function the next day.