At first glance, the latest novel by Singapore mystery author Ovidia Yu may seem quite familiar. As it begins, members of the British upper crust of the 1930s are thrown off kilter by a killing in an exotic location, and a detective arrives to quiz the suspects. There's not much sex and violence, and readers will get a kick out of trying to identify the culprit.
But while it's definitely on the "cozy" side, The Frangipani Tree Mystery isn't your grandmother's sedate English whodunnit. That's because Yu, best known for a modern-day Singapore-based mystery series featuring a restaurateur named Aunty Lee, has her eye on more than murder.
Through her new lead sleuth Chen Su Lin, a young Chinese woman who's a second-class citizen in her own home country, Yu explores a tangled web of social injustice amid pre-war colonialism in Singapore.
You could say Yu is a woke Agatha Christie. She's also a remarkable talent with a vivid sense of time, place, and character. She puts her skills to use to conjure a captivating Singapore where dramatically different cultures blend, unite and divide.
Yu chatted about the appeal of mysteries and her desire to explore what's "right" in a recent interview with the Monitor.
Q: What draws you to write mysteries?
Mysteries unite characters. If there’s someone lying in a pool of blood, everyone comes and stares. Otherwise we are all on our separate trajectories, living our separate lives. Writing stories lets me explore how all these different people react to this kind of incident at this point in time.
Q: What are you hoping your new sleuth can reveal about the Singapore of the 1930s?
We’ve all been thinking back to colonial Singapore these days because we’re coming to the 200th anniversary of the British taking over Singapore next year. People can’t agree whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.
I wanted to explore what it must have been like to live back then as second-class citizens in the only home you have.
Remember, it makes a huge difference who you go back as. Because most of the people who left records were better educated and better off, it’s too easy to romanticize [the past]. I’m only too aware that life here and now is really tough for some people.
Q: Could you put the late 1930s in Singapore into perspective? What was happening?
I heard about this time – the 1930s and 1940s – in stories shared by my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.
This was the time between the two wars when they thought for a short while that the worst was over, that they had survived the Great Depression. But they were only to find things were getting even worse.
I used to think of that time in sepia tones because of all the photographs from the era. But you know, the sky was the same color as it is today, the sea air probably smelled even better. And the trees we have today, some of them are the same trees that were around back then. There's even a tree website in Singapore that provides maps where you can check the identity and age of trees you see.
Q: Do you think about social justice as you write your novels?
It's more that I'm trying to figure out what is "right" and how this applies in a particular time or place and from different individual points of view.
I’m also trying to figure out ways to use writing to allow readers to experience trial runs of interacting with different kinds of people. The filter of time makes it easier to accept, I hope!
Q: You hint that your sleuth's next adventure will take her into the criminal underworld of Singapore, and this novel describes a bit of that universe. Could you elaborate a bit on what draws you to that topic?
What draws me is how little I know. I want to know more, and I want to play with it.
There are always dynamic boundaries between the "underworld" and the law abiders. Some of these boundaries, like trees, may be the same ones today.
Q: What's next for Su Lin? I feel like romance is coming her way.
Oh, I would like a romance for Su Lin. But I don’t know how soon that’s coming. In the original plan, I had her getting together with [a male character] and adding an afterword written by their granddaughter, but then [he] had other ideas.
Next year, "The Paper Bark Tree Mystery" will be coming out. And it will be that 200th anniversary I mentioned, which is indirectly the reason why I read and write and dream in – and love – the English language.