Murder mystery layers insights to colonialism



By Ovidia Yu

Constable/Paperback/330 pages/ $18.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

The latest instalment of Ovidia Yu’s detective series begins with her Peranakan heroine Chen Su Lin getting fired – and then having to explain to her less competent white replacement how to do her job.

Yu’s cosy crime chronicles, set in 1930s Singapore, are beginning to show their teeth. The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is the third and most complicated of the mysteries and the most critical yet of colonialism.

Su Lin, an eminently practical teenager once in the employ of British chief inspector Thomas Le Froy, finds herself edged out in a Singapore brimming with racial tensions between wars. A surge in Indian nationalism places the local population under harsh colonial scrutiny while a sinister Japanese presence begins to make itself known.

When Bernie Hemsworth, the administrator who got Su Lin fired, winds up dead in the filing room, she herself falls under suspicion.

To exonerate herself – and prevent his possibly vengeful spirit from visiting her during the seventh-month ghost festival – she decides to solve his murder.

This involves getting tangled in a conspiracy of diamond smuggling, a handsome but deadly assassin and a cadre of canny Englishwomen.

It is the first novel to pit Su Lin against her mentor Le Froy, who has not been honest with her and whose empathy with the locals she has begun to question.

This reviewer had remarked of earlier novels that Le Froy was too perfect and that Su Lin and her fellow locals were oddly forgiving of the trespasses of their colonial overlords. This novel compensates for that, and then some.

Su Lin, previously indignant, now thinks with rage: “We who lived here, and knew how things worked at ground level, had no say in our own lives. Instead decisions were made by outsiders who considered themselves above, in every sense, the mud we lived in.”

This anti-colonial sentiment produces some dramatic similes – imperialism is compared to the strangling banyan tree and Britain cast as “abusive, exploitative stepmother”.

But it is good to see Yu try to come to grips with this and especially fitting in the Bicentennial year, when Singapore is trying to look both commemoratively and critically at its colonial legacy.

Hefty issues aside, this mystery still has comic touches aplenty and a denouement that is thrilling, if a tad rushed. Yu has announced she will be continuing the series into the Japanese occupation of World War II – it is not dark yet, but it is getting there.

If you like this, read: The Wyndham and Banerjee series by Abir Mukherjee, beginning with A Rising Man (Vintage, 2017, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), in which a British police captain and an Indian sergeant solve grisly murders in 1910s and 1920s colonial Calcutta.

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