So, full disclaimer, Ovidia Yu sent me this herself as we’ve developed a quite friendly professional relationship. I super love her Aunty Lee mystery series, feeling it’s gone from strength to strength as the series progresses, so I was quite thrilled to receive the first in Ms Yu’s new series. The setting is terrific — I am always partial to books that do justice to the region I come from, and Ms Yu writes about Singapore with both skill and love — and Su Lin is a wonderful heroine. The mystery is also well done: I suspected but wasn’t sure of the identity of the murderer till the very end.
But. I don’t know why the writing bothered me so much. I know Ms Yu is an excellent writer (please, everyone, read Meddling And Murder, which is one of the best books to come out of Singapore ever) so I don’t know how to explain how weirdly underwritten The Frangipani Tree Mystery felt in parts. It didn’t flow well at all, and while I liked Su Lin, I didn’t feel immersed in her experiences at any point in the book. Given how immediately sympathetic I found her, this was a very strange position to find myself in. There are parts of the book that are very good, usually having to do with Su Lin’s family or her interactions with other locals, but most of the scenes with white people felt stilted and unnatural (also, poorly edited. Most glaringly, how did Dee-dee know Su Lin’s name at the beginning?) Which reminds me of the (few) weaknesses of Ms Yu’s debut mystery, Aunty Lee’s Delights, and leads me to wonder whether TFTM reads so oddly because the white people are inescapable in it, and perhaps Ms Yu is uncomfortable in her fictionalization of them (tho again that wasn’t so much a problem in Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge, so I don’t even know.)
Anyway, I’m very eager to see where we go next with this series because so much about it is promising, and I know Ms Yu can deliver. If you just want to immerse yourself in a historical mystery tho, in a time and place that isn’t often (if ever?) covered by the genre, this isn’t a bad book for it. I just know Ms Yu can write better than this quite entertaining, if somewhat stilted, novel.