The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first in a series of mysteries set in Singapore between the two World Wars. While I had not read anything by Ovidia Yu before, this story appealed because of its historical setting, eye-catching cover and the description of its heroine – more on her later!
The novel begins with Su Lin, a sixteen year old orphan who dreams of being an investigative reporter, trying to avoid being married off as the second wife of one of her uncle’s business partners. She is keen to find a role that will allow her some measure of self-determination so when the Acting Governor’s sister Miss Nessa suggests a housekeeping position with the Chief of Police she jumps at the opportunity, even if it is far from her dream job.
Before she can get started however the Police Chief, Le Froy, is called to the Governor’s Mansion in response to the death of an Irish governess who apparently was killed in a fall on the grounds. Finding the death suspicious, Le Froy reluctantly agrees to Su Lin’s suggestion that she could take the governess’ place caring for the daughter while keeping an ear open for gossip that may shed some light on what has happened.
Su Lin is an intriguing and very well balanced character. Yu skillfully establishes her within the context of her time, making her brave, perceptive and smart yet clearly setting social and physical barriers that threaten to constrict her choices. For instance, Su Lin has survived the Polio that killed her parents but this is perceived by many to be an association with death and on several occasions we hear that Su Lin may have been turned away by her relatives had it not been for the very strong regard they had for her parents. This sense that she will bring bad luck to the family is part of the reason they are seeking to marry her off at the start of the novel.
Similarly Su Lin’s relationship with the governor’s family is awkward, at times being treated with civility but at others treated as something less than human. The question of racial relationships within colonial Singapore and within the greater context of the Empire is really interesting and handled with subtlety at points throughout the novel and the question of the value we place on status, station and family connections is returned to at frequent points in the story.
The Governor and his family’s apparent disconnection with aspects of local life stands in contrast to the characterization of Le Froy, a charming and serious figure. While he is also an outsider, he takes the time to get to know the locals and so recognizes social standing. He doesn’t always get it right, sometimes needing Su Lin to help him navigate those relationships, but he treats her with more respect that she expects making him instantly likeable. Perhaps most importantly he cares for her but does not control her, respecting her choices, and I appreciated that Su Lin is allowed to solve the mystery herself, even if Le Froy will end up performing the practicalities of resolving the situation.
Yu fills her story with an interesting mix of suspects and supporting characters. Some of my favorites have little to do with the case directly, such as her grandmother or the cook and gardener at the mansion. These characters are not just charming, they give the sense of a bustling, lively household and I appreciated that the servants are more than just props, being allowed to throw tantrums when they are offended by the way they are treated or to show their kindness and humanity towards a sick child in small but meaningful gestures.
One of the most intriguing themes of the piece is Su Lin’s conflicted feelings about the family she is working for. While it may seem strange, she often feels quite sorry for these characters who can be quite horrible to her not just through their conscious actions but through their subconscious ones. Similarly at times Su Lin reflects on the way that being part of the British Empire has led to Singapore’s development in ways both positive and negative.
So, what did I make of the mystery itself? I thought that the case was engaging and was fairly well paced. I particularly appreciated the explanation for the girl’s death and thought it was interesting to consider how events develop from that starting point.
The case is fairly clued though I think there are a few aspects of the solution that stood out probably more than they were intended to. This is always a tricky thing to judge as what immediately jumps out at one reader may pass another by. Being somewhat ahead of Su Lin towards the end of the novel did not significantly alter my enjoyment though and I thought it built well to an exciting conclusion.
Overall I felt that this was a very strong start to what seems to be a promising series of mysteries. The second in the series, The Betel Nut Tree Mystery, will be released in June and I am looking forward to seeing Su Lin’s continued development as a sleuth.