Great things come in trees: Ovidia Yu’s feted crime trilogy concludes this week with the eagerly-awaited publication of The Paper Bark Tree Mystery. But, writes Lucy Bryson, Yu’s final instalment isn’t quite as good – it’s “utterly divine”.
Last year, I described Ovidia Yu’s three-book crime series, The Crown Colony Mysteries, as wonderful and charming. Books one and two in the trilogy were, my glowing review went on, highly recommended reading.
This year, I take that back.
After reading its third and final instalment, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery, I have no option but to describe the series differently.
It’s absolutely, completely and utterly divine.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery and The Betel Nut Tree Mystery were both good—really, really good—and enjoyed critical and commercial success. But The Paper Bark Tree Mystery, out now through Constable, is exceptional. It’s the jewel in the trilogy’s crown and, like Charlie’s Angels’ Lucy Liu and Harry Potter’s Hermione, its best component and greatest champion.
A feminist crime novel at its heart, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery catches up with the adventures of the pragmatic, problem-solving Chinese detective, Su Lin (in my view one of the most interesting and captivating female heroines in the history of the crime genre). As an accomplished assistant at Singapore’s newly established detective agency, Su Lin is justifiably disgruntled when her privileged English boss, the deeply unpleasant ‘Bald Bernie’, decides to replace her with a rich, attractive white girl. But things go from bad to worse when Bernie’s body is found dead amid the filing cabinets and Su Lin herself comes under suspicion.
Bernie’s murder marks the start of a wonderfully fast-paced whodunit involving shady ladies, stolen diamonds, explosive revelations and some cleverly-placed red herrings. When Su Lin’s best friend’s father is accused of the murder, she places herself in great danger by setting out to find the truth and clear his name.
Whilst the plot itself is superb, the strength of the trilogy lies in Su Lin’s depth of character. Unlike her pretty, self-centred roommate, Daniella Darling – “One of the most irritating people I knew, and not just because of her high whining voice” – Su Lin is real. She has an understated appearance and is lame in one leg by polio. She’s complex and, like the rest of us, refreshingly flawed in a way so few literary heroines are allowed to be. She relies on a brilliant mind, on her wits, and on a worldly pragmatism to slip through Singapore and investigate unnoticed.
Like the previous two novels in Yu’s Crown Colony series, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is set in 1930s Singapore at a time when its foundations were being laid under British colonial rule. Through colourful, descriptive language (and meticulous research), Yu convincingly imagines what life would have been like for young women—and Singaporeans generally—during that era. She also has a knack for bringing the sights, sounds and smells of Singapore—a country that may be unfamiliar to many Western readers—bursting to life on the page.
As Singapore celebrates its bicentenary—a year-long commemoration to mark 200 years since the arrival of its British ‘founder’, Stamford Raffles—The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is a timely historical resource. Like The Frangipani Tree and The Betel Nut Tree mysteries before it, this too raises a variety of cultural concerns about racism, white privilege, and patriarchal society that remain valid today. It doesn’t shy away from religious prejudice—against Indians and Jews, as well as locals—either, or from the lack of professional opportunities for women.
Whilst Yu avoids taking a ‘black and white’ approach to the rights and wrongs of British colonialism (her nuanced cast of characters may be good, evil, or somewhere in between, regardless of racial identity or social standing), she uses the paper bark tree of the book’s title as a powerful (and pointed) metaphor: its peeling bark may look weak and diseased to foreign British eyes, but it is strong and healthy beneath its weathered exterior.
The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is the perfect read for a summer’s afternoon or, if you’re planning to take part in the bicentennial celebrations, ideal for the 13-hour flight to Singapore. You’ll enjoy every minute.
The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu is available now on Amazon UK through Constable, priced £8.99 in paperback, and £5.99 as an ebook. For more information about Ovidia Yu and her work, visit www.ovidiayu.com/
Exclusive Q&A with Ovidia Yu
We speak to Singapore-based award-winning author and playwright Ovidia Yu about her writing, her love of trees and her favourite pastimes, among other things.
Q. Your Crown Colony series all derive their titles from the names of trees. What is the reason behind this?
A. When I thought about writing a Singapore history mystery, I looked for places where murders and romances might have taken place. The problem with Singapore being so small is, older buildings and roads here are constantly being demolished to make room for new ones. But many of the older trees are protected, especially the ones designated ‘Heritage Trees’. (If you go online to trees.sg, you can see where these are located and how old they are). I found it striking to think how much these ancient rainforest trees have witnessed. We must seem like ants to them, rushing around searching for food, fighting wars and dying.
And also, because I like being around trees. I think I got this from my late grandmother, who also loved trees. I remember driving her around Bukit Timah where she would tell us about the old trees and the kampungs (villages), wild boars and even tigers that were there when she was a girl.
As these books are also a kind of tribute to my grandmother and mother—Su Lin, my protagonist, lives the kind of life they were too well behaved to—it seemed fitting to put that upfront. Of course, it helped that my editor seems to like these trees too, though she’s never been to Singapore!
Q. What are the secrets of writing a great whodunit?
A. I wish I knew those secrets! I love reading whodunits and whydunits and playing with them, but every new book is a new writing experience. It’s like no two children are alike.
I suspect, though, that it’s easier to write murder mysteries than some other kinds of fiction. Causing the death of another human being is a taboo shared across cultures, and because we’re all vulnerable to death, it catches our attention the way a love story or self-help organising book might not, depending on our mood at the time.
Think about it—I tell you that I stepped into Pret a Manger just before closing time to grab a sandwich and found it deserted except for a middle-aged woman dead on the beech wood floor holding a balloon that says ‘You’re Next’. Don’t you want to know what happened and who killed her and why?
And when I tell you she looked like you and was wearing a suit and shoes just like what you have on, you’re immediately even more invested in the story.
Of course, if her killer followed me to you then this may turn out to be a thriller. Or I might be an unreliable narrator who’s been obsessed with you since we were in the same toddler dance class and you pirouetted better than I did…
Q. If you were stranded on a desert island, which three books would you take with you, and why?
A. Oh dear, this is difficult! Can I take my Complete Miss Marple? Because I can read those stories over and over again. And Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time—in French—because it would keep me absorbed for a long time and I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it unless stranded on a desert island. And for my final book, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, because I’m going to need those Stoic exercises. Though I would probably enjoy a Rex Stout or PG Wodehouse in exile far more than Proust or Stoicism!
Q. You initially trained to become a doctor before pursuing literature instead. What prompted this change of career path?
A. I’m afraid going into Medicine was the ‘wrong turn’ for me. And for the wrong reason. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do was write. To be honest, I tried to apply to Law School, but my late Dad (a doctor himself) slapped me and made me change my application. But though I found the texts fascinating, it left me very little reading time and I really hated the thought of spending the rest of my precious single life either working for a hospital or running a clinic or handing out painkillers as a serial locum.
Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, was a doctor. So are Robin Cook (Coma), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and they are better writers than I’ll ever be. But I was delighted to learn that Gertrude Stein started studying medicine at Johns Hopkins because William James pushed her into it… but dropped out because she grew bored!
Q. What’s the one thing you enjoy most about being a writer, and what one thing do you least enjoy?
A. What I enjoy most is playing with characters and story lines. Also, I enjoy hitting that point in a book where the story starts coming to life and everything you see or read or hear while queuing at the hawker centre seems to give insights into your characters or suggest incidents or colour that would work perfectly. Once I got a massage when I was at this point and it was torture because I had all these ideas in my head that I desperately wanted to scribble down but I had to lie still!
What do I least enjoy? Probably the headaches and eye aches from forgetting to take a break. Neck aches too. I use a timer to remind me to get up and stretch and walk around, but when I get too caught up, I sometimes don’t hear it.
I’ve been asked if it’s painful to read bad reviews. It can be, of course—especially if I agree with the points made! But by the time a book reaches review stage, I’m usually working on the next one. I imagine it’s like reading your child’s school report. It hurts a little because you’d like all her teachers to appreciate all her qualities like you do, but even if she’s untidy and doesn’t pay attention in class, she’s still your precious child.
Q. What has been your proudest moment to date?
A. When a woman recognised me at a prata shop and told me The Frangipani Tree Mystery had helped her get a sense of what her parents had lived through. She said she made her daughter read it too. I asked the daughter (aged 12) what she thought of the book and she replied, “It’s very funny. I think I want to write books too.”
It makes me happy—and proud—that my book made someone laugh and want to write down her own stories. Because that means it touched something in her.
Q. You started your writing career as a playwright and have had more than 30 plays published. What are the key differences in writing for these two mediums, and will you be writing again for the stage?
A. For me, the biggest difference is the amount of interaction; with the director and actors, with the physical stage, sound and seating. I loved writing for the theatre, but it took a lot more time and was over much more quickly. As I write this, however, two of my earliest plays, ‘3 Fat Virgins’ and ‘The Woman In A Tree On The Hill’ are in pre-rehearsal for shows later in 2019, so resurrections do happen!
But now I’ve fallen in love with writing books on my own. I can decide to cut out a huge chunk or character because it just doesn’t belong, without having to explain things to a director or sponsor. I can have characters look and sound exactly as I want, without needing to adjust to actors under contract. It’s a complete make-believe fantasy world where I can do whatever I want and it’s wonderful.
Though of course—and fortunately—I have my agent and editors to keep me more or less balanced. I couldn’t do it without them. And no, I don’t think I could give this up to return to writing for the theatre.
Q. When not writing, what do you enjoy as pastimes?
A. Reading is my first love and favourite pastime, ranking even higher than writing. And I enjoy drawing, though I’m not much good at it. I have charcoal and crayons and colour pencils, and I like to play around with them at the end of a long day. I’m not trying to make great art, just putting down the things I’m grateful for: my plants, my fish, my turtle and my two dogs.
The dogs, Princess Peach and Hermione, are probably my principle ‘pastime’. They were both SPCA ‘rescues’ and had some health problems, but it’s a joy to see how confident and loving they have become. Plus getting them outdoors for their health has probably made me a lot healthier.
Q. Who is your favourite crime novelist of all time, and what makes them stand above the rest?
A. Recently I discovered Abir Mukherjee and Sujata Massey and went on a Rick Riordan binge. But I think for my top favourite of all time will always be Agatha Christie. I go back to her for comfort and familiarity, like an old granny who’s a bit racist and forgetful without realising it but who you never forget was once one of the great beauties of her age and maybe of all time.
Q, Before writing the three Crown Colony whodunits you penned a series of equally acclaimed Aunty Lee mysteries. Do you have plans for any more Aunty Lee novels, and likewise for the Crown Colony series?
A. Oh yes, I hope so! I’ve got so many story ideas for Aunty Lee and a rough draft of a book. And I’m working on the next book of the Crown Colony series, only with this one we’re moving into the days of Japanese Occupation so I may have to start referring to the books as the Tree Mystery Series… another instance of how trees outlast buildings, humans and regimes!