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 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.