The paper bark tree mystery by Ovidia Yu
Crown Colony, book 3. Constable, 2019. ISBN: 9781472125248.
(Age: Senior secondary - adult) Highly recommended. Shortlisted for the CWA historical dagger 2020, Ovidia Yu has come up with another fascinating mystery set in Singapore in the 1930's. SuLin has been a valued member of the Detective Shack until Bald Bernie, an unlikeable administrator, decides that a local girl can't be trusted and instead employs Dolly, an attractive white woman. When he is found murdered, she has little sympathy, but when Dr Shankar the local pharmacist and her best friend's father is put in jail she decides to investigate.
I knew little about the history of Singapore between the wars, so found it fascinating to gain what felt like an in-depth understanding of what it was like to live in Singapore at that time. Yu very deftly includes this as a background to the murders, which still took centre place in the story. The independence movement in India is described as a leading figure in it, Bose, is rumoured to have travelled to Singapore, while relations with Japan and its wider move to take over territories comes out as SuLin teaches English to the wife of the Japanese ambassador. The way many of the British colonials treat the Singaporeans, believing themselves superior, is also a background theme to the story.
As SuLin investigates she gets to know Mrs Lexington, Rose and Dolly, all who have arrived in Singapore from India. Colonel Mosley-Partington has also arrived from India and is causing chaos with his racist views. Rumours of diamonds being stolen, a policeman attacked and left for dead and anonymous poetry being left for Dolly, a paper bark tree and dead birds, all keep the reading in suspense. These twists and turns and some heart stopping moments and great characters make this an outstanding story especially for readers who like a mystery dashed with a taste of history.
Although part of a series, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery can be read as a stand-alone. However, I enjoyed it so much that I now have to go back and read the previous novels featuring this clever young woman who uses her intelligence and observation skills to ferret out the truth, while suffering from the effects of polio as a child.