There are criminally few good mystery novels set in Singapore. Veteran playwright Ovidia Yu has delivered some of them with her Aunty Lee series about a nosy Peranakan cook. Now, turning her mind to historical fiction, she has produced a delightful little whodunit in the first of the Crown Colony series, set in 1930s Singapore.
Chen Su Lin, a 16-year-old Peranakan orphan considered bad luck by her family because of her polio, is trying to avoid being married off by her relatives.
She aspires to be a journalist like Henrietta Stackpole, of the Henry James novel Portrait Of A Lady, but will settle for a housekeeping job with police chief inspector Thomas Le Froy if it keeps her out of wedlock.
Things get complicated, however, when Le Froy is called to investigate the suspicious death of an Irish nanny at the British governor's mansion on Frangipani Hill.
Su Lin replaces the victim in caring for Dee-Dee Palin, the governor's mentally disabled daughter. Her plan, however, is to do her own bit of detective work in the Palin household and act as Le Froy's woman on the inside.
The novel's strength is in its efficient, resourceful heroine, whose wry asides provide much of its humour. When a woman is described as "hysterical" and "having an emotional breakdown", she remarks: "I hadn't thought of (her) as hysterical or emotional, but perhaps that was how white men said 'Need help with crazy rifle-carrying woman'."
By Ovidia Yu
Constable/Paperback/ 313 pages/$18.95/Books Kinokuniya
Singapore readers will rejoice at the little local details - a provision shop scene with Little Gem biscuits is a lovely touch - but Yu also does not flinch from the grimmer side of life in a colony.
Su Lin and her fellow servants are often reminded of how their British employers do not see them as fellow human beings.
It is rather frustrating how forgiving they are of even their masters' most dreadful trespasses. This, perhaps, is not so much flawed writing as an interesting study of internalised racism, although Yu does not probe further at this point.
Le Froy is a little bit too perfect, being handsome, progressive and fluent in dialect to boot. What is important, however, is that he does not get in Su Lin's way.
While the story builds to a rather helter-skelter denouement, the ride there is charming enough. With Su Lin in the driver's seat, the Crown Colony mysteries promise to keep readers fascinated with pre-World War II Singapore.
If you liked this, read: Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie (HarperCollins, 2001, $12.84, Books Kinokuniya), a serial killer mystery set in 2000 BC Egypt. When a priest's young, spiteful concubine falls off a cliff to her death, his daughter Renisenb begins to question if it is murder - and if someone in her household is responsible.