Review of Ovidia Yu’s The Frangipani Tree Mystery (USA: Constable, 2017)
by Stewart Dorward
Set in 1930s Singapore, The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first volume of the new Crown Colony series from Ovidia Yu. Her earlier ‘Aunty Lee’ series gave us a Peranakan Miss Marple and examined the issue of Chinese privilege in contemporary Singapore. In the latest novel of that series, Meddling and Murder, that privilege almost caused the death of Aunty Lee’s Filipina maid. In this new series, the privilege is decidedly white colonial. The series is set in a place and time when an uneducated teenage Irish nanny can find herself seated at the governor’s dinner table simply because she is white. Aunty Lee’s maid narrowly avoided death but this Irish nanny doesn’t. To unravel the mystery of her death, Sir Henry Palin, Singapore’s temporary acting governor, asks Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy to investigate.
White mystery writers tend to look at Asia and the Middle East through a privileged racial lens. The books of Agatha Christie, for instance, are full of blatant Orientalism. In Yu’s The Frangipani Tree Mystery, we look at Singapore through very different eyes. Chen Su Lin is a 16-year-old Peranakan orphan scarred by polio. She survived through the grace of her grandmother, who was advised to sell her off as she was regarded as bad luck. She is not at the bottom of the social heap. There are prostitutes and others below her, but her position is precarious. Through her eyes we see Singapore from an angle in which the colonial class are the Other.
At the start of Yu’s novel, Su Lin’s perspective has been colonized by her mission-school education and as a result she idolizes two women. The first is the fictional character Henrietta Stackpole from Henry James’s novel Portrait of a Lady. An orphan like Su Lin, Henrietta works as a freelance magazine writer. Su Lin admires her and aspires to become like her in both her character and career. Henrietta finds herself unimpressed by the English upper-crust while staying in a country estate. Su Lin has a similar experience living in the governor’s residence and she forms similar conclusions. If Henrietta is the new American then, Su Lin is the new Singaporean.
The second idol is the mission-school benefactor, Vanessa (Nessa) Palin, Sir Henry’s sister. Su Lin describes her in this manner:
This indefatigable woman was tall, clever and resembled Mrs. Virginia Wolfe, the writer…. I know I was not the only student at the school who took her as my role model. I was Miss Nessa’s star pupil because I could mimic her accent perfectly.
Mimicking her colonial mistress gives her status in the colonial state of things. Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Su Lin wants to escape from sleeping at the foot of her grandmother’s bed, to have a room of her own. She aspires to become something other than part of an arranged marriage that would benefit the Chen family. She also wants to write, to have her own voice.
She turns to Nessa to save her. The governor’s sister introduces her to Le Froy, whom Nessa has decided needs a housekeeper. Le Froy walks in on a literal tug of war between Nessa and Su Lin’s uncle, who has come to rescue his niece from “the shame of employment.” In Uncle Chen’s world, female employment could only mean servitude and prostitution. Le Froy extracts Su Lin from this tussle into his service. He is a handsome white savior who is “the closest thing Singapore had to Rudolf Valentino.”
However, plans change and Su Lin replaces instead the deceased nanny to care for Dee-Dee Palin, the governor's mentally disabled daughter. Su Lin’s plan is to do her own detective work inside the Palin household and act as Le Froy's woman on the inside. In her own mind, she is an investigative journalist and police spy, masquerading as a nanny. In reality, she is a sixteen-year-old with a temporary job.
Su Lin narrates most of the story in the first person. She uses a rather formal style that she might have picked up in school. So the novel’s humor is bone dry. For example, when a woman is having meltdown, Su Lin remarks, “I hadn't thought of (her) as hysterical or emotional, but perhaps that was how white men said ‘Need help with crazy rifle-carrying woman’.” This style, with its apparent objectivity and detachment, may cause us to forget that the narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl with little life experience. She is not even aware that her family run the biggest black market and money lending schemes in the city until Le Froy tells her. In her faux-maturity and real naivete, Su Lin continually gets things wrong and nearly gets herself killed.
Race is front and center in the story but it is not unpacked, at least not as much as I wish. The story is told through Su Lin’s eyes and, as yet in this first book of the series, she has not focused her attention on the issue. Instead, she pushes it to one side. For example, early on, she reflects that “It would have been easier if I had been an English woman rather than a Chinese girl, but I didn’t worry about what I couldn’t change.” Su Lin and her fellow servants are often reminded of how the Palins do not see them as true human beings. The Palins are described as being very nice to people; it is just that they do not regard many around them as people. This is obvious when the reason for Sir Henry’s transfer to Singapore is explained. He was hunting with a Malay sultan when one of the local helpers was badly injured. Henry shot the man, like a wounded dog. “Put him out of his misery,” Sir Henry said. “Poor blighter was probably going to die anyway.” The ensuing scandal is why the authorities transferred him.
The novel sets up a powerful contrast between the Palins and the Chens. Unlike the Chens, who own their property, the Palins are living in a borrowed home. They are a small, well-mannered household of five hiding behind heavy curtains and British decorum from the heat and life of the tropics. They dine on imported stale food that makes them constipated. They are idle. Sir Henry’s desk is empty and his staff spend their time reading magazines. His wife spends most of her time in her room getting fat and drunk. Their son takes artistic photos of plants. Nessa makes her appearances in the mission school more in order to impress than to do much.
Yet when the two families meet, the Chens are lower in status. Su Lin’s uncle is both wealthy and tanned from physical work. He dresses in a singlet and old shorts and yet manages the largest moneylending business in Singapore. The Palins are poorer but white and in charge, so they have formal status even if the Chens have economic power. These are Su Lin’s observations as she reassesses what she has learned from school.
The weakest aspect of the novel is Le Froy. He is too perfect. Apart from being handsome, he is also progressive in his politics. He is “unlike most Europeans who demanded respect without giving it.” This perfection extends to his ability to speak to the locals in their languages and interact with them according to their cultural norms. He tops this off at the end of the book by being gay friendly as well. This seems over the top. Even Sherlock Holmes is shown with faults, such as his melancholy and cocaine habit. At the end of this book, Le Froy has not yet become a fully rounded character.
What is important is that he does not get in Su Lin's way. He takes her from school to the governor’s mansion and leaves her there. He questions her a few times and at the end he comes to her rescue. This means that the book is full of Su Lin’s thoughts, plans, and actions. She is a refreshingly non-conformist heroine and not at all the obedient coward that she describes herself to be. At sixteen, she will have a lot more stories to tell.
If Le Froy is Sherlock in this new series, Su Lin is no bumbling Dr. Watson. She is a detective in her own right and is only partially, and temporarily, held back by her age, disability, gender, and race. Although she will always limp a few steps behind the older white male police inspector in colonial Singapore, from what we have seen of her so far, she will use her handicaps to her advantage.
Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.