Review

Intrepid sleuth delights in sequel

THE BETEL NUT TREE MYSTERY
THE BETEL NUT TREE MYSTERY

FICTION

THE BETEL NUT TREE MYSTERY

By Ovidia Yu

Constable/Paperback/312 pages/ $18.95/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars


Hot on the heels of charming colonial crime novel The Frangipani Tree Mystery comes a sequel by veteran local writer Ovidia Yu, who moves from strength to strength with the return of intrepid sleuth Chen Su-Lin, who continues to be an absolute delight.

A Peranakan orphan determined to become a journalist, she has found employment as a secretarial assistant at the newfound Detective and Intelligence Unit, headed by British Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy.

Eminently practical, Su-Lin has no time for the gossip around English King Edward VIII's abdication to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

But when wealthy British rake Victor Glossop is found dead and covered in betel juice stains in the grand Farquhar Hotel on the eve of his wedding to American widow Nicole Covington, Su-Lin wants in on solving the mystery.

Against Le Froy's will, Su-Lin ends up as chaperone to the highly strung Nicole, who is convinced she brings death and destruction to all around her.

Su-Lin is the kind of young woman who, when her best friend Parshanti gushes over the romance of a public proposal, thinks to herself: "I would have preferred a more private proposal myself so I could say, 'Let me think about it', then check on the man and his family."

Yet she herself is not perfect in judgment, as we soon see through Yu's reluctance to let any of her colourful cast of complex characters lapse into stereotype.

One may write Nicole off at first as a shallow drama queen and poor mother, but there are more layers to her.

The relationship between Su-Lin and Le Froy is also shaping up to be an intriguing one, wavering between professional respect and protective mentorship.

Su-Lin's grandmother, the powerful matriarch of a local crime family, asks Le Froy at one point to act as "sifu" (teacher) to her erstwhile granddaughter, which promises to be an interesting dynamic.

While the novel is set in the 1930s, it is full of contemporary nods - from the #MeToo movement lampshaded in a stomach-churning experience of sexual harassment - to the rise of the alt-right, here in terms of Adolf Hitler's coming to power in Germany.

"Chancellor Hitler is just a businessman and an opportunist. Nobody takes him seriously," Le Froy says dismissively. How we know better.

There is also some meta-commentary on Orientalist tropes ("It's my inscrutable look," Su-Lin informs another character at one point. "I'm fading into the background by appearing Oriental and harmless.")

One looks forward very much to the last instalment in the trilogy.

If you like this, read: Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow, 2013, $24.61, Books Kinokuniya), in which a nosy Peranakan chef-turned-sleuth looks into a murder after one of her guests fails to show up at a dinner party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Intrepid sleuth delights in sequel'. Print Edition | Subscribe