The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Book Details

Originally Published 2019
Su Lin #3
Preceded by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

The Blurb

SuLin is doing her dream job: assistant at Singapore’s brand new detective agency. Until Bald Bernie decides a ‘local girl’ can’t be trusted with private investigations, and replaces her with a new secretary – pretty, privileged, and white. So SuLin’s not the only person finding it hard to mourn Bernie after he’s found dead in the filing room. And when her best friend’s dad is accused, she gets up to some sleuthing work of her own in a bid to clear his name.

SuLin finds out that Bernie may have been working undercover, trading stolen diamonds for explosives from enemy troops. Was he really the upright English citizen he claimed to be?

Meanwhile, a famous assassin commits his worst crime yet, and disappears into thin air. Rumours spread that he may be dangerously close to home.

Beneath the stifling, cloudless Singaporean summer, earthquakes of chaos and political unrest are breaking out. When a tragic loss shakes SuLin’s personal world to its core, she becomes determined to find the truth. But in dark, hate-filled times, truth has a price – and SuLin must decide how much she’s willing to pay for it.

In One Line
The strongest case so far in a historical mystery series with a fascinating setting and memorable main character.


In spite of the historical mystery being one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction, it seems to have been a really long time since I last read one for this blog. Not sure what happened there. In any case, I am happy to resume coverage with a look at the third book in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series set between the two world wars featuring her Singaporean sleuth Su Lin.

While each novel does tell a self-contained story, I would suggest that this is a series you really want to read in order. The reason is that the author cultivates a sense of change between each book meaning that if read in order you see Su Lin gain in confidence while Singapore and the British Empire’s relationship also shows some signs of change. While you could follow what is going on in The Paper Bark Tree Mystery without reading the previous stories, I think you would miss out on the thoughtful characterizations and the sense of these adventures taking place in the context of world history.

This particular story opens with the discovery of the death of “Bald Bernie”, a man who has been responsible for getting Su Lin removed from her post as an assistant at the Detective Shack. She discovers the body when she turns up at the office to her help successor, Dolly, get to grips with the filing system.

As the first on the scene and given her history with the deceased, Su Lin is an obvious suspect but it soon becomes clear that the Police believe the death may have links to the rumors that an Indian revolutionary is at large in Singapore. When her best friend’s father is arrested on suspicion of being in league with the revolutionaries, Su Lin investigates the crime herself in the hope that she can clear his name.

There are lots of aspects of this series that appeal to me but the part that fascinates me most is its presentation of Singapore in this time period. Each novel has been able to utilize and comment on developments within the British Empire and this volume in no different. For instance, this story reflects the rising tensions within the Empire about the risk of revolution and the relationship between the colonial authorities and the natives. Su Lin’s dismissal after all comes as a consequence of an administrator’s fear that being a Singaporean her loyalty might be questionable.

This book also incorporates wider concerns about the political climate in the region. We read about Indian revolutionaries and the Congress party as well as the perceived threat that is posed by an expansionist Japan. What I think Yu does really well is to show these ideas and conflicts from several different perspectives, showing that there is a diversity of opinion and individuality within each of the cultures depicted.

The other idea that really comes over strongly is that many of the Singaporean characters are practical in their responses to these challenges and threats. While we do not spend time with Su Lin’s grandmother in this volume, we do hear her thoughts and plans reported to us. It is these details that I think make these characters feel rich and interesting enough to support multiple stories and that leave me curious to see how they will adjust to the changes that will take place over the decade that follows.

I also appreciate that each volume in this series attempts to move Su Lin’s personal story forward. While the first novel showed her building a relationship with Le Froy and the second had her working closely with him, here she is on the outside and feeling angry toward him.

Her reasons are quite understandable – she feels that having promised he would serve as a mentor for her, he did not stand up for her keeping her position in the Detective Shack. The novel explores how that choice has changed their relationship though Su Lin retains a strong bond to the group of detectives she used to work with.

One parallel that is explored throughout the novel is the contrast between Le Froy who has sought to build relationships and understanding with the Singaporean community leaders and Colonel Mosley-Partington, a more recent arrival. They have different personal styles and while the conflict is rarely direct, I felt the contrast between the two characters was interesting and helped draw out and show different aspects of Le Froy’s character.

Having discussed the background to the story I ought to also discuss the mystery itself. Opening the book with the discovery of the body does allow a certain compression of the case itself, throwing us straight into the investigation portion of the novel. This means that much of the background to the case is provided to us through the narration which can feel a little awkward and were this one death to be the sole focus of the book I would have been disappointed.

The story quickly expands its scope and focus, giving us a second body and placing that first death in a much broader (and more interesting) context. The reader’s challenge is to understand the connections between the different elements that have been introduced. I felt that the answers given were interesting and pretty satisfying, tying these various strands of the story together well.

Overall I found The Paper Bark Tree Mystery to be as entertaining and compelling as the two earlier volumes. Su Lin continues to be an appealing sleuth and I am enjoying seeing how she is developing from book-to-book. Because of those developments both in the character and in the historical background I would suggest however that these books would be best read in order rather than dipped into. If you did read and enjoy the previous installments in this series though I am sure you will enjoy this one every bit as much.

Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu

Aunty Lee’s Delights
Ovidia Yu
Originally Published 2013
Singaporean Mystery #1
Followed by Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials

Aunty Lee’s Delights is the first in Ovidia Yu’s series of mysteries featuring restaurateur sleuth Rosie “Aunty” Lee set in modern day Singapore. I had previous read and enjoyed her more recent historical series which began with The Frangipani Tree Mystery so I was curious to see how the two series would compare.

Aunty Lee is a wealthy widow who was married to one of Singapore’s most prominent men. She has no need to work but rather chose to open her restaurant to keep herself busy after the death of her beloved husband.

The novel begins on the evening of a wine-and-food tasting party that is being thrown at her restaurant by her stepson Mark in the hopes of turning it into a viable business. As Mark waits for his guests to arrive, Aunty Lee is more interested in finding out information about an unknown woman who was found washed up dead on the shore in a nearby resort. When two women fail to show up to the party, Aunty Lee begins to wonder if one might be the dead woman (they are though I won’t tell you who the body belongs to)…

Technically this is not a closed circle mystery though Aunty Lee recognizes that the guilty party was likely one of the group attending the dinner that evening. They are, after all, the people who knew the dead person best and we soon discover that several had strong reasons to hate the deceased.

One of the things I like most about this book (and Yu’s other series set in Singapore) is the way it captures the multicultural aspects of the city-state. The cast of suspects Yu provides are travellers from different regions of the world and each possess highly distinctive personalities and outlooks on life (though many seem quite narrow-minded and dismissive of the locals). Because many of the characters are visitors to the city, this also enables Yu to discuss aspects of Singaporean life from the perspective of insiders and outsiders.

A complaint I have seen in several reviews of this book is that some readers find the cast of suspects to be unlikable. I certainly can see the argument that some voice some rather unpleasant opinions. Several characters infuriated me at points in the story but there are also some moments in which we are able to connect with them and gain some understanding of their perspectives, even if we might still disagree with them.

Where Yu’s Su Lin (or Crown Colony) series discusses issues of colonialism and gender roles in that historical period, Aunty Lee’s Delights often reflects on Singapore’s dual identities as an authoritarian country and also a cosmopolitan one. Several characters anticipate how they might be treated when they interact with authority figures and I think Yu’s presentation of her police characters is thoughtful and nuanced.

Similarly the book addresses issues related to religion and sexuality. Sometimes these themes are explored with humor, at other times through debate between characters or more emotional discussions, but they are always discussed thoughtfully and in many instances they help build our understanding of the characters and of this case.

The mystery of the women’s disappearances and the dead body represent an interesting starting point for the story and I did enjoy following Aunty Lee as she snoops, uses her age and social standing to extract information and generally tries to push the police along to the right answer.

Frequently Aunty Lee is often compared to Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and there are some obvious similarities, not least their ages, observational skills and interest in people. Lee, like Marple, also makes use of her maid to follow up on leads for her.

While this comparison can be a useful shorthand for explaining some aspects of Lee’s character, I think there are some interesting differences between the characters too. For one thing her husband, though dead, is a powerful presence in this book both literally in terms of the way his portrait hangs in each room of her home but also in a more supernatural sense. In one of the novel’s most poignant moments, Aunty feels her husband’s presence and resents an external action that pulls her out of that feeling.

For what it’s worth, Yu credits a different Christie creation as providing the inspiration for the character – Lucy Eyelesbarrow from 4:50 from Paddington. While there may be less physically in common between these two characters, I do understand what Yu means when you consider their attitudes and practical personalities.

I found that the earliest chapters of the novel are its most interesting ones as we learn about the relationships between the different members of the group. While the chapters that follow are interesting and rich thematically, I felt that the case becomes a little stagnant until we suddenly get a flurry of activity and revelations towards the end of the novel.

It perhaps did not help either that I had guessed at the murderer quite early in the novel. That guess was not based on any evidence but simply a gut reaction to the various characters but nothing that followed really challenged that belief or make me consider someone new.

While I felt that the reveal of the killer’s identity disappointed a little, I would like to emphasize that I did feel it was a consistently entertaining read and that I found its themes interesting and handled thoughtfully. I particularly responded to the character of Aunty Lee who I found to be an entertaining and memorable protagonist. I look forward to reading some of the subsequent installments in the series to see how her story develops.

Further Reading

Criminal Element did a feature where they cooked the recipe “Amazing Achar” which is at the back of the book. They include pictures so you can get a sense of what it looks like.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

BetelNut
The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
Ovidia Yu
Originally Published 2018
Su Lin #2
Preceded by The Frangipani Tree Mystery

Back 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 Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Frangipani
The Frangipani Tree Mystery
Ovidia Yu
Originally Published 2017
Su Lin #1
Followed by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

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.