2017’s The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first volume1 in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony mystery series.
1936: Singapore still languishes under the boot of the British Empire. Were imperial domination alone not bad enough, the Depression lingers.
Su Lin is considered unlucky, possibly cursed, by her family. Not only is she an orphan, but polio left her with a noticeable limp. Her uncle Chen has a solution: arranged marriage to a man Chen will make sure has suitable prospects (if the uncle has to provide them himself). Vanessa “Miss Nessa” Palin, the spinster sister of Sir Henry Palin, acting governor of Singapore, has a different solution: Su Lin will become Chief Inspector Le Froy’s housekeeper.
Fate provides a third alternative.
Le Froy appears at the home of Su Lin’s formidable grandmother while Chen and Miss Nessa are still heatedly discussing the comparative merits of their proposals. He is almost immediately called away to deal with a dead body at the acting governor’s residence. Le Froy takes Su Lin with him.
The dead person is nanny Charity Byrne. She appears to have died of a broken neck sustained during a fall from a balcony; she plummeted through the branches of a frangipani tree (hence the title of the book). However, there is a small knife wound in Charity’s side. Perhaps this is not the accident it appears to be.
Brain-damaged by a fever, seventeen-year-old Deborah “Dee-Dee” Palin has the mind of a seven-year-old. Rather than institutionalize Dee-Dee, as any proper family would do back in Blighty, her father Sir Henry hired a nanny to care for the teen. Dee-Dee’s nanny being quite dead, Sir Henry needs a replacement. Su Lin demonstrates a knack for managing Dee-Dee and is drafted.
This provides Su Lin with an inside view of the Palin household. It’s easy for the bright young woman to gather information about Charity, and the Palin family: charming but inconsiderate Sir Henry, his aloof son Harry, the relentlessly energetic Miss Nessa, Sir Henry’s miserable second wife Mary, and of course Dee-Dee. If Charity was murdered, then it had to have been someone in the household. Su Lin is in the perfect position to work out who the guilty party was.
Alternatively, the murderer could conclude Su Lin is too much of a threat and murder her as well.
To repeat a point made in my earlier review of a mystery in this series, this novel has many of the characteristics of a cozy, with one notable exception. Cozies generally take a favorable view of the established order. The Crown series is told from the perspective of someone well down the colonial pecking order. The inequities and inefficiencies of the British Empire are harshly illuminated by the events of the book.
Sir Henry is a fine example of inequity and inefficiency. He is known to have off-handedly murdered a badly injured servant during a hunt to avoid the inconvenience of having to have the fellow’s wounds treated (Sir Henry having accidently shot the man in the first place). The only consequence for Sir Henry was gossip. As well, his primary qualifications for being acting governor were that he was in Singapore when the governor needed a stand-in, is British, is thought to be rich, and has a “Sir” in front of his name.
Readers encountering this back in 2017 might not have known if this were going to be volume one of an ongoing series. Consequently, readers might well have wondered if Su Lin would survive her encounter with the Palin household … were it not for the fact that Su Lin narrates most of the story. First person narrators generally survive the stories they tell. Although there are notable exceptions. Nevertheless, the narrative makes a good case that 1) Su Lin might be murdered for her detective efforts and 2) the murderer might well skate if the killer is a rich Brit of high status and the victim is of low status. Especially if the victim is a poor POC.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery accomplishes everything a volume one should accomplish: it establishes the setting, gives readers a reason to care about the characters, and provides an enjoyable, self-contained mystery.
1: Volume 3 was reviewed here. It’s set in 1937, one year later than this volume; that’s before the Japanese invasion in 1942. Volumes 4, 5, and 6 cover the Japanese occupation of Singapore. My editor, who has read them, informs me that they are quite readable if often harrowing. She would like to know what happened to the surviving characters after the Japanese were forced out of Singapore in 1945, but alas … no more books in the series. We can hope that Su Lin and her family prospered in post-war Singapore.