The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

BetelNutBack at the start of Summer I read and reviewed the first of Ovidia Yu’s historical mysteries set in interwar Singapore, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, which I found to be a charming and entertaining read with a surprising amount of thematic depth. I was left feeling optimistic about this second novel and have looked forward to picking up where that story left off and finding out what happened to its appealing series sleuth, Su Lin.

At the start of The Betel Nut Tree Mystery the Police are providing protection for a wedding party on the new Governor’s orders. The bride groom gives his protectors a scare when he fakes a bloody death but there is nothing to laugh about when he is found dead a short while later, apparently poisoned.

Though Su Lin demonstrated her ability as a sleuth in the previous novel, here she is has returned to performing light housekeeping and secretarial jobs in spite of her hoping to be placed in active duty once again. As such it takes her a while to find herself in the thick of the investigation although she is well placed to observe much of what is happening and we may feel as much in the dark about Le Froi’s motives for doing this as Su Lin herself.

Le Froi remains quite an enigmatic figure throughout this second book. We are given more information about his life in the course of this story, albeit from a possibly untrustworthy source, but have yet to hear his own perspective on events before he came to Singapore or about his reasons for making certain choices since arriving. I appreciate the slow and subtle exploration of his character across these two books and that even at the end of this he remains quite an enigmatic figure. This is only right as the stories are Su Lin’s but I will be intrigued to get some answers about his life in a future installment.

The author provides us with a healthy array of suspects and there are a good mix of motives to consider. More impressively however the author once again manages to simultaneously have these characters behave abominably towards Su Lin or each other and still have the reader feel moments of sympathy for them, however fleeting. I think Yu captures the complexities of people and their relationships very well and makes the game of working out their relationships with each other and to the dead man quite compelling.

These characters have an interesting mix of secrets they are trying to conceal that Su Lin will draw out in the course of this story. As in the first novel, Su Lin finds herself spending time with the suspects informally in their hotel. Most of the family are wary of her ties to the Police but find themselves giving away information in spite of themselves in their interactions with each other and in a couple of cases quite deliberately sharing information about each other with her or Le Froi.

One of the elements of this series that I think particularly stands out is the handling of the racial tensions and relationships within Singapore. It was handled well in the first novel but here it comes to the fore, always being handled in subtle and naturalistic ways, as we learn about the impact international events such as the rise of fascism in Germany or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria are having within the Empire and, in particular, upon life in the multi-ethnic Singapore.

The event that hangs most over the novel however is the abdication crisis that occurred when as Edward VII resigned his office to marry an American divorcee. We not only hear references to the events in conversations but there are even some direct parallels between their situation and that of the would-be bride, Nicole Covington who had also seen two relationships end in less than ideal fashion. It had never occured to me that the impact of this event would stretch so far. As with the previous novel, these sorts of historical details are impeccably researched and I think it is one of the most distinctive features of the series.

The most important feature of any historical mystery is the case to be solved and I am happy to say that this is well plotted and has some intriguing twists and turns. Arguably the identity of the culprit is clued a little too effectively in the chapters leading up to the reveal but the journey to that moment is gripping and executed perfectly making for a very satisfying conclusion to what is an enjoyable and entertaining mystery. I can only hope that more adventures lie in store for Su Lin!

Review copy provided by the publisher. The Betel Nut Tree Mystery is already available as an ebook and will be released in paperback on October 16, 2018.

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch

StoryvilleLast month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.

Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.

The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.

Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.

My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.

Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.

Continue reading “The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch”

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

CoronersLunchThe Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.

The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.

I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.

The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.

Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.

When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level.  Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.

Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.

I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.

What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.

While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.

I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.

Santa Fe Mourning by Amanda Allen

SantaFeSanta Fe Mourning is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in 1920s New Mexico. This setting caught my eye because while the time period is a familiar one for murder mysteries, I was intrigued by the Southwestern locale which I haven’t seen done before in a historical setting.

Allen’s protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, has come from a wealthy background but after her husband dies in the First World War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist to her family’s disapproval. There she has established a circle of friends and built a home.

The novel begins with Maddie returning home by train after a trip to New York. At the station she is met by Eddie, the son of the Native American couple she employs as her gardener and cook. He has some bruising on his face and she soon hears that relations between Eddie and his father have deteriorated, the latter having become increasingly erratic in his behavior, while she was away and that his mother is contemplating sending his sisters away to a convent school.

Soon Tomas Anaya is discovered dead near a speakeasy, covered with blood from what looks to have been a brutal beating. Eddie is arrested on suspicion of murdering his father and Maddie, feeling sorry for the family, decides to intervene to try to comfort them and make sure that Eddie is not mistreated or wrongly convicted for a crime she cannot believe he would have committed.

This brings me to the aspect of the book that I responded to most positively: that Maddie becomes involved not because she wants to snoop or out of a sense of danger, though she does exhibit a little of the latter as she gets deeper into the case, but because she has compassion for the family who live and work with her.

This is shown in the initial actions that she takes of trying to work out a way to expedite the release of the corpse to the family so that they can carry out the funeral rites and finding a lawyer to help Eddie come home to his family. What makes this approach feel so refreshing to me was because it feels truthful, simple and organic. I also appreciated the way it establishes and develops the novel’s central theme about how we experience and react to great losses because Maddie’s experience of losing her husband is part of what drives her to act.

Allen’s focus on that theme was, for me, the most successful aspect of the novel and I was fascinated by the various examples of characters who have suffered some loss and experience a rebirth or a new sense of purpose. In some cases this plays out quite subtly such as Maddie herself because when the novel begins she is already part way through that journey – in others it can be quite dramatic as when we learn more about the Anaya family’s past. This is variations on a theme but done very well with each subplot complementing the others.

Another aspect of the book that I think is successful is the author’s attention to historical and cultural details which feels authentic and quite on point. Some may quibble about the level of freedom that Maddie has at times, though I think Allen does address that by having her seek out her best friend to serve as a chaperone for some of the adventure. I do think that the background of the story feels very well conceived and I appreciated that she is able to give us some real locations and individuals without making it feel like a research project.

Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the themes and the setting, I cannot be quite so glowing about the novel as a piece of mystery fiction.

To be clear, I think the book is an entertaining read and I think the plot is clever and I appreciate that it is clearly developed out of the novel’s setting but there is little in the way of misdirection. Part of this reflects that the author spends a lot of time establishing the character and the dynamics of her household and circle of friends but I think the bigger problem is that almost all of the characters are ruled out as suspects from the beginning.

Even if you do work out the murderer’s identity you do still need to figure out how and why this has happened but here, once again, I think the attentive reader will be able to infer the solution quite early in the novel. This is a pity because there are some good ideas here and I think one aspect of the solution is quite neatly set up and revealed but I think the story would have benefited from devoting a little more time to building up the alternative killers.

While this frustrates me, I will say that this was not a deal killer. I found the book entertaining and enjoyed its setting and the way the author developed her ideas. I also liked that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a second volume nicely should this one prove to be a success. My hope is though that when that one does come out that a little more time will be given over to creating red herrings and alternative suspects to beef up the mystery element of the novel.

For those who like a dash of adventure in their mystery fiction or stories set in this time period or area of the world, I do think there is quite a lot to enjoy here.

Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr

DeadlyHallDeadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.

My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.

The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.

Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.

There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?

The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.

Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.

Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.

Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.

The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.

Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.

While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!

Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinmanI am typically a little wary of historical mystery novels that feature historical figures or events prominently. There are certainly some very good stories that have used them thoughtfully but all too often I feel that it becomes an excuse to indulge in historical celebrity-spotting. While Bertie and the Tinman features a number of real life figures I am happy to say that they are generally used in a very thoughtful and restrained way.

The premise of this short series from Peter Lovesey was that Bertie, the Prince of Wales, fancied himself an amateur detective and had several adventures that he recorded in book form and had sealed away for a hundred years to avoid causing any disgrace. This period now being at an end, we are reading what purports to be a historical account complete with a charming editor’s note at the end that suggests that there are reasons to doubt its authenticity (not least that we should doubt that Bertie possessed the drive to complete a manuscript himself) and outlines the fates of the various characters following the end of this adventure.

The incident that this story revolves around is actually drawn from the history books, the apparent suicide of famed jockey Fred Archer as a result of delirium brought on by illness. Lovesey weaves his narrative around those historical details very skillfully to create a rich and believable story. The question is why a man who was regarded as the most skilled rider of his era would suddenly commit suicide when he seemed to be recovering from a bout of illness. While I do not share Lovesey’s love of sporting history, I think this initial premise is intriguing and certainly it provides a cast of colorful characters for us to encounter.

Bertie, the Prince of Wales, is on the face of it rather an unlikely detective and I did worry that I would find it hard to take him seriously in that role or that there would be some alterations to his character to make it work. Instead Lovesey makes a virtue of those deficiencies, presenting us with a slightly different model of investigator. He is not a great thinker, though he is certainly intelligent, nor does he possess much drive or application in conducting his investigations as at several points he hands off work to others to perform on his behalf.

He does possess the advantage of access and status however that will prove a boon to him in his investigations. In addition, he is genuinely intrigued by the circumstances of this mystery and concerned for Archer’s reputation in death. The combination of those traits made him credible to me and I appreciated that Lovesey does not gloss over his flaws.

In fact it is those flaws within Bertie that make him the most compelling aspect of this story as he has one of those wonderful narrative voices that drips with personality. This is a man who feels frustrated in his position, keen to acquire a purpose and meaningful duties yet often acting quite irresponsibly. He can be quite self-aware and charming yet he can also be an incorrigible ass, particularly in the way he treats his wife. The result is a hero, of sorts, that we can laugh with and at but whose investigation is serious and credible.

There are some memorable moments along the way, not least when his mother makes an appearance as well as some of his bedroom antics (which are written to tread the line perfectly, being more bawdy than explicit). The biographical details of Bertie’s life are well researched and the novel touches on many aspects of Victorian life and culture including the music hall scene and spiritualism.

As entertaining as Lovesey’s prose and dialog can be, I think that judged purely on the mystery elements the book would be found wanting. Perhaps because Bertie possesses more limited powers of deduction than the likes of Cribb, the solution to the mystery is unlikely to dazzle or shock the reader. Alternatively, perhaps Lovesey’s care to ensure that the solution fits the historical facts is responsible. Either way, the final third of the book lacks much of the spark and excitements of the earlier sections though I was charmed by his use of a challenge to the reader presented in the form of a bathtub realization.

Ultimately it is the charm of the novel that carries the day and makes it easy to overlook some of the weaknesses of the mystery at its heart. Bertie is instantly recognizable, credible and amusing so it is never a chore to spend time in his company while Lovesey’s attention to the details of the historical setting and character is superb. A very entertaining effort.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

FrangipaniThe 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.