Here is a thing the world cannot get enough of: British Historical Mysteries. Like my children’s appetite for dessert, readers are insatiable when it comes to murder served with a spot of tea and possibly a biscuit. (Lest you think I am being judgy, you should know that I am a fan of both sweets and genteel murdertimes.)
Still, it is good to expand one’s horizons. Lately I’ve been seeking out historical mysteries set somewhere other than the British Isles, and Ovidia Yu’s The Frangipani Tree Mystery not only fits the bill, but is tremendous fun, with dry humor and dastardly deeds in equal measure.
Set in 1930’s Singapore, while the colony is still under British rule, it introduces us to Chen Su Lin, a clever and determined sixteen-year-old girl who has bigger ambitions than an arranged marriage. When the Acting Governor’s household is struck by tragedy, Su Lin’s mentor arranges for her to temporarily take over as nanny to the family’s developmentally disabled daughter, Dee-Dee. But Dee-Dee is convinced that her beloved nanny was murdered, and both Su Lin and the very very British Chief Inspector Le Froy think she might be right. They team up to uncover the truth – a search which puts Su Lin in danger, and also reveals her own family’s less-than-legal activities. Su Lin, it seems, is well acquainted with the criminal underground of Singapore, though she’s stayed far away from it.
There are plenty of twists and red herrings throughout the book, the characters are well-drawn, and the setting of colonial Singapore is captivating. Yu does a particularly good job of illustrating the tensions between the British and the Singaporeans, from political plotting to everyday life (you’ll get your tea and biscuits, plus delicious-sounding noodles). The partnership between Su Lin and Le Froy is deftly handled — she’s impulsive but canny, he’s straightlaced but brilliant – and they genuinely learn from each other. Le Froy is ostensibly the one in charge, but it’s clear that he respects Su Lin from the outset, and I look forward to watching them team up again.
Su Lin herself, however, really steals the show. She’s funny, smart, observant, determined, pragmatic, yet also sees the good in people. In short, she’s delightful – as is The Frangipani Tree Mystery. They’re a charming and very welcome addition to the historical mystery field.