The Frangipani Tree Mystery (2017) by Ovidia Yu

Source: Review Copy (Constable)

I don’t tend to read a lot of historical mystery fiction, but the blurb and premise for today’s read certainly piqued my curiosity. It is not every day that you get to read a mystery set in 1930s Singapore. Aidan’s positive review also increased my interest in giving it a go.

The book begins with Dee-Dee aka Deborah Palin finding her governess, Charity Byrne, dead under a frangipani tree. This is initially presumed to be an accident, but new evidence soon comes to light which undermines this theory, as does her past. Whilst Byrne is plunging to her death, Su Lin is trying to get a job in order to avoid being married off by her uncle. Her teacher Miss Vanessa Palin, (Deborah’s aunt), has hopes that she will act as a housekeeper for Chief Inspector Le Froy, but news of Byrne’s death puts this idea on hold. Lin’s immediate rapport with Dee-Dee means she gets taken on as a temporary governess, a position which of course gives her a much wider access to the Palin family, of whom much is suspected. Yet being a governess/companion is not quite what Lin envisages for her life, yearning to be a female reporter like Henry James’ Henrietta Stackpole and she is soon picking up information about this fairly dysfunctional household, giving Froy new leads. But she is putting her life in danger as well?

Overall Thoughts

As a first novel this book gets a lot right. One of the reasons I am sometimes reluctant to delve into historical fiction very often is that the narrative can get quite bogged down in historical details. Yet this is definitely not the case here, as Yu deftly, but succinctly explores and depicts Singaporean culture during this turbulent time period, presenting a rich yet ambiguous illustration of the relationship between the British and the Asian communities. Authentic is definitely the word which springs to mind. Equally Yu does not fall into the trap of forcing anachronistic attitudes onto her characters, even if this does mean voicing their less than inclusive opposites.

A significant part of Yu’s success in establishing her setting is her choice of protagonist, as Lin is someone you immediately engage with and become interested in. Childhood polio has left her with a limp, but she is very determined to get on in life and see more of the world before settling down. The moments where the narrative shares in her thoughts are very interesting as they often reveal a sharper edge to her. For instance early on in the story she says: ‘I always try to please people when I can, especially if it doesn’t cost me anything. It makes them easier to deal with.’ She is even able to see the positive of her parents dying when she was young in that it meant her grandma, (black market business woman and moneylender), took her in and sent her to the local mission school to learn English. Though, at times she does have to bite her tongue, censoring her more disrespectful comments or thoughts, including this favourite of mine: ‘No doubt proper young ladies in England believe chickens grew on menu cards.’ As you can see Lin may have some preconceived ideas of English ladies, yet her narrowness of view is not fixed and her way of expressing such sentiments is invariably entertaining. Lin is definitely a woman who is of a generation which knows its family’s traditions, but is also interested in and curious of Western culture and often finds herself taking on board a bit of both worlds.

Returning back to the idea of cultures, I think this tale is good at making you compare the enclosed British communities with the wider Asian community. This is particularly pertinent in regards to Dee-Dee. She may be 17, yet an illness as a child has left her with the mental state of a 7 year old. At least two characters implicitly or directly suggest that Dee-Dee would be a much more capable and independent woman if she had lived within an Asian family, being given a job within the community that she could manage, thinking of other 7 year olds that they know which are doing important household tasks or earning money. This is all contrasted with the household she is in where the luxury and overprotectiveness renders her incapable of looking after herself in any way.

Given Lin’s background and the fact that this is her first experience of a criminal investigation I think her entry into the world of amateur sleuthing was a very plausible and natural one. This does make the story have a slower pace, but I found that the clues uncovered were done so in a more natural fashion, rather than conversations having to be artificial created to achieve quick results. The story could have been shortened a little but in the main I enjoyed this novel and based on the contents of the last page I am intrigued to read more into a series which has a lot of promise and originality.

Rating: 4.25/5

7 comments

  1. Thanks for the link in your review. I was excited to see that you were reading this and very happy that you enjoyed it too. The setting is certainly a big part of the draw and I shared your appreciation of the smaller details Yu is able to include.

    I am excited for the second story and to see our sleuth continue to hone her powers of detection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad you enjoyed the novel. 🙂 My hazy recollection suggested to me that I liked the cultural background and the characterisation, but felt less certain about the puzzle itself. I’ve read some of Yu’s other mystery works, and I would say her writing in general bears similar strengths and weaknesses.

    It’d be good to see where Yu takes this series. I’m not fully persuaded that the puzzle will get better, but there is rich potential for Yu to take the wider story of Su Lin and Le Froy in 1930s Singapore into some interesting directions.

    Like

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