I was thinking the other day that I haven't seen a new book from Ovidia Yu in a while. When I checked her website, I found a new "Aunty Lee" story, Meddling and Murder. But I also learned that she has a new series, the first two books of which are finally available in the U.S. The summary of the first, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, sent me immediately in search of a copy:
1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly and mysteriously, mission school-educated local girl Su Lin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.Su Lin narrates most of the story, with occasional comments that show she is looking back at the events. "I was to come to know the bungalow on Frangipani Hill very well, but on that long-ago first day I was young and awestruck..." Brief sections also follow Chief Inspector Le Froy, told in the third person, presenting events and conversations that Su Lin learns about later.
But then another murder occurs at the residence and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all Su Lin's skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy solve the murders - and escape with her own life.
I found Su Lin an interesting and sympathetic character straight from the first page, where she is caught between her formidable English mentor (who wants her to take a job with Le Froy) and her very traditional uncle (who has arranged three possible marriages for her).
Knowing Miss Nessa had a soft spot for me, I had asked her to help me find a job. I could not tell her that I longed to be independent like her, and see the world beyond Singapore, so I might have exaggerated my fear of being married off now my schooldays were over. In truth, [my grandmother] Ah Ma might have kept me at home with her to recoup the investment she had made in sending me to learn English reading and writing at the Mission School. I had been considered 'bad luck' since my parents had died from typhoid, and childhood polio had left me with a limp. It had seemed unlikely my family would ever be able to marry me off, but since I was the only child of Ah Ma's favourite son, she had decided to educate rather than sell me. My grandmother's moneylending and black-market businesses had made her rich in the continuing Depression, and she could afford to keep me at home to translate for her, run errands and monitor the household accounts. But grateful though I was to her, the school run by the Mission Centre had opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. I wanted more than a lifetime of toil under my grandmother or a mother-in-law. If I was to escape domestic captivity, I would need my own money, which was why I had to find a paying job. (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's goal is a career in journalism, inspired by the character Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, "whom I had found far more interesting than the book's heroine." She takes the position with the Palins in part out of compassion for their daughter Deborah, at seventeen only a year older than Su Lin, but due to brain damage from an illness mentally a child of seven or so. But Su Lin is also motivated by curiosity, to know what happened to the dead woman, Charity Byrne, an orphan like Su Lin but with no other family. Inspector Le Froy, "known for his willingness to work with - and against - men of any race, language or religion," does discriminate against women. "In the newspapers he had been quoted as saying that the police force would never employ female officers because it was impossible to work with irrational persons." It's lovely to see his prejudices breaking down in the face of Su Lin's intelligence, competence, and compassion. "It was his first inkling of how tough a practical female can be."
There is so much to enjoy in this story, both the setting and the fascinating mix of peoples. Su Lin's best friend from school is Parshanti, whose British mother and Indian father put the family in a complicated, uneasy place in the community. Like Su Lin, Parshanti's options are limited now that her schooling is ended. Her father, a doctor, has trouble finding patients so he works with the police on forensics. Perhaps she will end up helping Su Lin in the cases to come!