Reviewed by Jeanne
As The Frangipani Tree Mystery opens, Charity, Irish nanny to the daughter of the Acting Governor of Singapore, has fallen to her death from the balcony. Is it an accident or murder? Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy is sent to investigate. It’s a good plot with twists and turns, filled with family secrets and conflicts, flavored with an exotic locale. Singapore in 1936 is still under British rule, giving the reader a melting pot of cultures and classes. I like that the author Ovidia Yu is a native of Singapore, since I feel I can give her perceptions more weight than something written by an outsider.
What I love the most is the narrator. Chen Su Lin is a sixteen year old girl who has been educated in the Mission School where she has honed her English and taught herself shorthand and typing. She’s an orphan and considered a “bad luck child” because both her parents died of typhoid and she walks with a limp from a bout with polio. Su Lin is grateful that her grandmother Ah Ma (who runs a lucrative black market business) didn’t sell her, as most would have done with such a child; but she still may be married off as a second wife as part of a business deal. This is not something she wants; as she tells us the Mission School had shown her an array of possibilities for her future that did not include “domestic captivity” either under her grandmother or a mother in law. She has dreams of becoming a journalist, a lofty notion for even a white woman in 1936, much less a Chinese orphan. Miss Nessa, a sister to Sir Henry and an occasional instructor at the school, also has ambitions for Su Lin because she is obviously intelligent and speaks the King’s English so well. Miss Nessa thinks she might actually be able to become a maid for Chief Inspector Le Froy.
With Charity’s death, Su Lin is pressed into service to look after Dee Dee, Sir Henry’s seventeen year old daughter with the mind of a child. She also has a covert mission: Inspector Le Froy has noted Su Lin’s keen observation and the fact that she is fluent in English, Chinese, and Malay, so he wants her to report to him anything that might bear on Charity’s death. Su Lin soon learns that behind the façade of a united aristocratic British family there are dark undercurrents and that she will need to tread very carefully. Her astute commentary on family relationships, racial and cultural differences seemed honest and were often ironically humorous. This could have been a very dark book, but it’s surprisingly amusing.
Su Lin charmed me totally. She is, as another reviewer said, “heartbreakingly practical.” She is wise beyond her years, having no illusions about her station in life but she doesn’t let that define or restrict her. I’m rooting for her all the way.
I also enjoyed the setting, with the blending of cultures in Singapore in the days before the Second World War. Old World British colonialism is in its last gasp—not that Sir Henry is aware of that in any shape, form, or fashion. Lady Palin, Sir Henry’s second wife, hates living in what she considers a cultural backwater, while Sir Henry’s son Harry considers himself a native Singaporean with no grasp of how his race and class insulates him.
This is the first in a series of mysteries with Su Lin and Le Froy, and I look forward to reading more.