Source: Review Copy (Constable)
My introduction to Yu’s Chen Su Lin series only took place over a month ago with The Frangipani Tree Mystery (2017), and I am already back for more with the second novel in the series, today’s read. The blurb on the front cover states that: ‘as Britain reels from the Abdication Crisis, events in the Crown Colony of Singapore take a murderous turn…’ I like how even this one sentence begins to open the picture on 1930s as a time period. The average reader may know of the Abdication Crisis and even its effect on the UK, but I doubt as many would be considering what the rippling effects this event would have on the world more widely and I guess in today’s world of scandal it’s hard to even conceive how much destabilisation this type of event could cause.
Since the first novel Chen Su Lin, our narrator and wannabe sleuth and journalist is now working as ‘Chief Inspector’s Le Froy’s secretarial assistant and cultural liaison at Singapore’s Detective and Intelligence Unit.’ In many ways this is an important stepping stone for Su Lin, yet of course Su Lin brings the reader back down to earth with the reality of this promotion: ‘I spent most of the day mopping floors, like a servant girl or spinster aunt’ and throughout the novel the case often leads to Su Lin taking on jobs such as child care, companion work and washing – jobs outside of this working context she was keen to avoid a life of. But I guess when you’re on the trail of a killer it makes all the difference…
Murder strikes a wedding party at the Farquhar hotel, with the victim being Victor Glossop, the bridegroom, a man known for his wild hedonistic lifestyle and his tendency to prank those around him. The victim surprises Su Lin and the other detectives as they were actually seconded by the Governor to watch over the bride, Nicole Covington, who had received death threats. Though once they come to know the victim, there are plenty of suspects for his death. His hysterical and drama queen bride has a history of men close to her dying – is this something she is responsible for? There is also Kenneth Mulliner, the best man, who seems uncomfortably in love with the bride, though this may be set to change with the arrival of Su Lin’s friend, Parshanti Shankar. Even Taylor Covington, Nicole’s father in law, could have reason to rid his family of such a man, given his devotion to his grandson. In to this confusion we also have a gossip columnist with far too much inside information for their own good and underlying tensions within Singapore itself, as officially inhabitants are not told to support Chinese retaliations against Japan, despite the latter’s military provocation and exit from the League of Nations.
Thematically, Yu packs in a lot into this novel, without over throwing the plot itself. As with the last novel racial stereotyping and prejudice are tackled head on, with too quick judgements being made by all of the characters. It is never shown as a one sided issue. Su Lin is not exempt from this, but she does consistently show she is prepared to adjust her opinion, which she and the reader have to do a lot with the suspects. It is not just that some characters seem bad and then are revealed to be good or vice versa, but sometimes characters can switch from either camp several times over the novel or even more ambiguously remain somewhere in the middle and for me I really enjoyed this complexity of character.
One of my favourite new characters in this book is the new Governor’s wife, Viola Jane. I think she adds a much more likeable white character element to the story, though the competition is not that fierce when we have Nicole offering to show Su Lin how to use a knife and fork. With this character we get an additional comic note, as well as a character who tells it like it is, neither white washing other British characters nor patronising Su Lin. Cultural difference is also explored in this novel through the theme of marriage and how they are arranged. Su Lin can see the disadvantages of love matches through her investigation, yet at the same time you can see her resisting any attempts by her family to arrange one for herself.
We get a much closer look at Su Lin’s sense of self in this second book as well. In particular I think this is because of the arrival of Shankar, who as the more empty headed, (when it comes to men), frivolous and outgoing personality, provides a strong counterpoint and Su Lin definitely seems to feel the contrast. Feelings of inferiority do creep in, as events force Su Lin to consider her limp more. Throughout the story you can see her trying to redefine herself, not by such superficial criteria as looks and desirability to men, yet at the same time her narrative sometimes slips back into such standards. Furthermore, at the start of the novel despite her career change she is almost feeling depressed:
‘To be honest. There wasn’t much point to most of my life right then. Until last year, staying at school long enough to get my General Cambridge Certificate had been my goal. The ladies who ran the school at the Mission Centre talked about the GCC as if it were the Holy Grail. But when you get home and find nothing changes, don’t you wonder if it’s really holy?’
And I guess due to my own experiences this passage really resonated with me. However, Su Lin doesn’t stay blue for long, as her no nonsense mind gets to work on the case and her dry humour is also delightfully evident.
Earlier I mentioned the range of jobs Su Lin undertakes whilst investigating the case, many of which re-situate her back into the stereotypically feminine domain. With the crime context she does not seem to mind this, in fact she actively welcomes it, feeling that she can find out more information that way. So it is interesting that Le Froy consistently tries to veto such activities and I am left wondering whether he is doing this out of kindness to protect her from danger or maybe because he wants to prevent her accessing information that he can get himself? Perhaps it is a little bit of both. After all, it is Su Lin so far who usually imperils her life at the end of the case whilst unmasking the culprit.
So overall another entertaining mystery by Yu, with the setting being irresistible and engaging as ever. It was also good to find out a bit more about the background of Le Froy and the painful events he left behind in Britain. Suspicion is cast across quite a few suspects so the identity of the killer is not guessable too quickly, though the more astute mystery reader may cotton on to the murder method a little more quickly than Su Lin.