The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is the third volume in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony mystery series.
Singapore in 1937 is very much a British colony. When officious, interfering, profoundly ignorant operations adviser Bernard ‘Bald Bernie’ Hemsworth descends on Singapore’s Detective Unit, there is little the senior staff can do to resist his counter-productive directives. Su Lin, until then the team’s main paper-pusher, is summarily fired and replaced by Dolly Darling, late of India.
Dolly is incompetent and not very bright but she’s pretty and white, qualities that Bald Bernie values highly. Unable to do her job, Dolly turns to Su Lin to do the job for her. A covert meeting in the Unit’s records facility turns up something neither woman expected: Bald Bernie’s dead body.
It would be most convenient if Bernie had simply expired from natural causes. Alas, he has been strangled and then stabbed by person or persons unknown, a person determined to do a thorough job of killing the unlovable functionary.
Su Lin should not have been in the Detective Shack, so there will be complications once the police are alerted. Nevertheless, she insists (over Dolly’s resistance) on alerting the authorities, not least because Su Lin knows Dolly will eventually blab about finding the body and lying about it now will look more damning later.
Su Lin’s former boss Chief Inspector Le Froy does not think diminutive, crippled Su Lin murdered Bernie, nor does Home Office representative Colonel Mosley-Partington. Nevertheless, Su Lin is very much on the outside of this investigation. In fact, administrative paranoia, exacerbated by the on-going troubles in India, kneecaps the investigation from the beginning. The Detective Unit is staffed largely with non-white people, any of whom could (and in at least one case is) involved with the various independence movements. While the Unit struggles with self-inflicted wounds, Su Lin investigates on her own.
Bernie was killed within a supposedly secure facility, under circumstances that suggest that he knew and trusted his killer. This would seem to point the finger at someone local. What evidence there is suggests that the homicide is connected with a dead courier named Weston, whom authorities believe was murdered and robbed in India by notorious but extremely hunky Indian Nationalist Chirag Bose. Weston was smitten with Dolly; Dolly fled India after his murder. What this all adds up to is unclear.
What is clear is that the matter is urgent. The Detective Unit is being damaged by mutual suspicion; it may well be irreparably damaged if the case isn’t solved soon. And then … another body is found. This time the victim is one of Su Lin’s Detective Unit friends.
If this isn’t a cozy, it’s close enough to cozy to hit that genre with a well-pitched cricket ball. But despite the overall gemütlichkeit, it’s clear that the author takes a rather dim view of the pre-war colonial era. Most cozies end up reasserting the proper social order. In this case, while the British are for the most part utterly convinced that there is a proper social order, one whose peak they occupy, the narrative rather undermines the notion.
The author illuminates the vast gulf between having authority and using authority efficiently and ethically. Powerful people may be utterly lacking in the wisdom and even the talent necessary if they are to do their jobs properly. It’s clear that the British colonial system is by its nature comprehensively corrupt, endowing people with power and jobs simply on the strength of their ethnic and class background. It’s not so surprising that this crisis reveals that corruption has extended beyond the conventional bounds (within which it is just the proper order of things) and is messing things up for everyone.
Indeed, anyone who has read ahead a bit knows that the next decade is going to be excessively interesting for Singapore. However the case in hand plays out, there will be no return to normalcy as defined by Whitehall. Given that Su Lin is likely to be in Singapore when the festivities begin (and if she is not, her extended family certainly will be), this adds an interesting level of tension well beyond concerns about Who-Dun-It and Will-Su-Lin-Get-Her-Job-Back.
None of which would matter if the reader weren’t invested in the fate of the characters. Happily, Yu provides ample reason to care what happens to Su Lin and her friends and relatives.