Review Blog

Oct 09 2020

The frangipani tree mystery by Ovidia Yu

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Crown Colony, book 1. Constable, 2017. ISBN: 9781472125200.
(Age: 15+) Recommended. After reading The paperbark tree mystery I immediately pursued the first in the series and was not disappointed.  The frangipani tree mystery introduces SuLin, a young girl who suffered polio in her youth. Educated at a mission and very intelligent, SuLin wants to become a journalist and travel, escaping an arranged marriage. When the opportunity comes to look after Dee-Dee, the daughter of the Acting Governor of Singapore, she grabs it, even though it looks as if Charity Byrne, the Irish governess has been murdered in mysterious circumstances. When another murder happens at the Governor's residence, SuLin's acute observation skills and ability to gain the trust of the people around her, assist Chief Inspector LeFoy in working out just what happened.
It is 1936 in Singapore and Ovidia Yu brings a fascinating historical background to the mystery. She weaves the history of colonialism and the belief of superiority that the white British administrators have, as a backdrop to the mystery. It is always subtly done, but by the end of the novel the reader has become well acquainted with life in a governor's residence, the way servants are treated and the hierarchy of Chinese residents, with SuLin's grandmother organising money lending and owning shops.
Some of SuLin's Chinese family's superstitions are also explored. They believe that because of her limp, she could bring bad luck, and she is prepared to work for a living if she can. Dee-Dee has an intellectual disability, and Yu's sympathetic portrayal of her makes her a relatable character, as is her brother Harry who disappears on strange assignations at night.
This is an easy to read mystery with fascinating historical detail and big themes like racism, class, gender and family relations, all brought in as subtle background to the murder. An article featuring the author and her writing can be found here.
The frangipani tree mystery certainly sets up all the atmosphere and plotting of a very good entertaining mystery, leaving the reader wanting to see what happens next with SuLin and Chief Inspector LeFoy.
Pat Pledger

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