The novel is set in 1930s colonial Singapore. Ovidia says she chose to write about her grandparents’ Singapore because it was where and when most of the stories she and her friends heard as children were set. The Frangipani Tree Mystery introduces amateur sleuth Chen Su Lin, a local Chinese-Singaporean with a limp. She is hired by Acting Governor Palin to look after his youngest daughter. Whilst working for the Palins, it falls to Su Lin to help ace-detective Chief Inspector Le Froy uncover the cause of a mysterious death….
Ovidia says of her novel: “It’s about what the interaction between locals and their colonial rulers was like, and also about how people are people across racial and social boundaries. Su Lin is very very very loosely based on my late grandmother, Grace Iau, who was the first female in her family to get a university degree. And Chief Inspector Le Froy is very very very loosely based on Inspector General Rene Onraet, who in the days before the war desperately insisted there were too many Japanese “businessmen” in Singapore and suspected they were spies. He was laughed at and his reports dismissed…and then the Japanese Occupation came.
If an interviewer could ask you only one question about The Frangipani Tree Mystery, what would it be, and how would you answer it?
Q: Did you enjoy writing it?
A: There were some awful tangles along the way, when I was sure I had written something deadly boring, dull, pretentious, pointless and a cruel waste of dead trees. But when I was towards the end of the final draft, things seemed to click into place and come to life and when I was finished it still wasn’t as good as I’d imagined in my head but I was very glad I’d written it. And looking back I would say: yes, I totally enjoyed writing it, even or especially the parts that were a struggle and a challenge at the time. Because it was how I worked my way through the dead bits that makes the book mine now.
What draws you to the crime and mystery genre?
I love reading mysteries. In mysteries we see people as they really are when pushed to their limits. Taking another human life is a taboo across cultural boundaries so understanding why someone would kill and how others react shows the true self that lies beneath manners and social conventions. I like trying to understand what motivates people.
Your Aunty Lee Mysteries are set in the present. Why did you turn from contemporary mysteries, to a mystery set in the past?
Actually, my first mystery, Miss Moorthy Investigates, was set in the 1960’s, a retro look into the near past. So, you see, I went from the near past into the present then back into the more distant past. The colonial era is a period I’ve always been interested in. Singapore is such a young country that it feels like the crown colony days mark the beginning of modern Singaporeans’ shared history. I wanted to find out more about that time and as I did, I wanted to write about it, to feel what it would have been like to live back in those days.
Can you give details of the kind of historical research you undertook for the new book? And what was the most interesting thing you learned during your research?
I read a lot of books. I had to spend a lot of time in libraries because some of the most interesting books were not for loan in the reserved sections - of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library for instance. But what I enjoyed most was reading letters and advertisements from the time. The most interesting thing I learned was how much people seemed to depend on consultations with mediums, not just temple mediums but mediums you would go to for help with health or financial advice. I hope to work it into a book someday but I really need to find out more first.
Your novel is a kind of homage to Agatha Christie with Chen Su Lin a younger, tropical Miss Marple. Agree or disagree?
It wasn’t intentional, but thank you for thinking so! I grew up reading Agatha Christie and love her books so I wouldn’t object to that. But Miss Marple based most of her deductions on people being classified into types, so once she identified a type from the microcosm in her village, she knew how that person would behave. Miss Marple is also very much an established member of her class, an impoverished British gentlewoman whose occasional luxuries come from her nephew Raymond. Su Lin is more a practical survivor who moves between Chinese and British cultures thanks to her Mission School education. But she is also an outcast from both groups: bad luck to the Chinese, on account of her limp, and granddaughter of a rich, powerful and possibly dangerous Chinese family to the British. If you want to find a character in Agatha Christie to compare Su Lin to, I think she comes closer to Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4:50 From Paddington or Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow, with the feistiness of Old Mrs Crabtree from the same book.
You have only four possible suspects for you murder – all Palins. With such a very small pool of possible suspects, how difficult was it to plot the novel, to keep the reader guessing?
You’ve got it wrong! For most of the book it’s open whether the death is an accident, suicide or murder, and a stranger or a servant are also pointedly possible suspects, in the case it’s a murder, so please don’t narrow it down to the four Palins! I had great fun working out the why and the how of the murder, as well as pinning it down on one suspect, and I hope readers will have fun too!
Asian sleuths seem quite popular internationally at the moment – Nury Vittachi’s Feng Shui Detective and Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh come to mind, not to mention Aunty Lee. Why do you think these Eastern detectives are becoming popular? Is it just, from a Western perspective, the draw of exotic settings?
Asian mystery writers like Keigo Higashino and Qiu Xiaolong have been very popular in Japanese and Chinese for a very long time, so maybe it’s just that translations are becoming more popular internationally at the moment? I’ve had responses from readers who have never been to Singapore saying that they enjoyed learning about the island while reading the Aunty Lee books, but others have written to say they once visited or lived in Singapore and enjoyed seeing places (and encountering food) they remembered. But the greatest number of people have commented that Aunty Lee is just like their mother, or aunts. One New Yorker said Aunty Lee was a Jewish grandmother and another claimed Aunty Lee was based on her Indian mother-in-law! So I hope what comes through is how much we have in common under the “exotic” setting.
What do you think of the label "cosy crime"? Do you think it applies to your books? If so, what makes the genre transfer successfully from the vicar with the revolver in the library of an English country house, to Frangipani Hill?
I think so-called cosy crime mysteries appeal to people who want a comfortable, humorous read without too much gratuitous sex and violence. When I’m really tired I can read a cosy mystery when I can’t read anything else. It’s like an old friend who you can trust not to bring up arguments about politics or religion just before bed. But then there are times when I need more than that from a book. I prefer to describe my books as "traditional" rather than "cosy" mysteries. I think what’s most appealing in this genre is the interactive element. Not just whodunit, these days, but more and more it’s whydunnit. When reading amateur detective mysteries, the question of how I would behave in such a situation always gives me fresh insights into myself as well as fresh speculations on people I meet!
Beyond crime fiction, Singapore fiction more generally seems to be having a moment – Kevin Kwan, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Chery Lu-Lien Tan. Why do you think editors internationally are taking a look at writing from Singapore? How much of it is down to the efforts of the National Arts Council (NAC), and government grants, do you think?
It was thanks to an NAC grant that I got three months at the wonderful Toji Cultural Centre in South Korea. I had been writing plays up till then and that’s when I made the switch to writing fiction. The time away from Singapore and isolation from English, Chinese and Malay speakers gave me breathing space and perspective. That’s where I wrote the first drafts of what turned into my first children’s book and the first Aunty Lee book (seven drafts later!)
I also benefitted enormously from the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award organised by the National Book Development Council because if not for the competition and, more importantly, the submission deadline, I might never have tried writing a children’s book. I didn’t win, but because I was the runner up Scholastic published The Mudskipper.
The ending of The Frangipani Tree Mystery hints you intend follow-up books. What are your future plans for Chen Su Lin?
I’m writing the second book now. I’m hoping that it will be a trilogy at least, because I started out with three books in mind. I’ve got so many ideas for all the characters. Someday I would love to link them through children and grandchildren to a present-day mystery. But, for now, I’m not going to say more because I don’t know yet.
Details: The Frangipani Tree Mystery is published in paperback and eBook by Constable & Robinson, priced in local currencies.