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  • One of those crime novels where you love the hero/

    The nuances of ethnicity and class in Singapore are more subtle. Fortunately the reader of the Betel Nut Tree Mystery has in Chen Su Lin a well informed and perspicacious cicerone. Just out of high school, the young woman works with the local police. When asked by the colony's governor who she is, she modestly replies aloud (and then under her breath): ‘Chen Su Lin. I am the cultural liaison. I do translations.’ I also managed the office logistics and accounts better than any of the men could, though they never admitted it." Su Lin is Chinese. Her grandparents came from China to Singapore (from 1867 to 1942 Singapore was a British Crown Colony, part of the Straits Settlements along with Penang and Malacca) as poor migrants who managed to set up a flourishing smuggling business. Su Lin was born with a limp. "After my parents had died, fortune-tellers advised my grandmother to send me far away or put me down a well. Otherwise the bad luck I carried as an orphan and polio victim would infect the rest of the Chen family. Instead, she enrolled me in the mission school to see if the Christian God could counteract my inherited bad luck." Although one leg is shorter than the other, Su Lin keeps her two feet firmly on the ground and despite her western learning, she remains at all times a pragmatic, dutiful girl. "I cleaned (the American's) rooms, sorted out the clutter and managed to restore some semblance of order...Whether or not you believe in feng shui, a mind feels clearer when the clutter surrounding the body is tidied." Her best friend is Parshanti. Su Lin is jealous of Parshanti because Parshanti has a mother and a father - "(the Scottish) Mrs Shankar was a skilled seamstress popular with fashionable (white) women. She could copy anything in the fashion magazines her husband brought in. Dr Rajan Shankar was an Edinburgh-trained doctor and surgeon, but Westerners in Singapore did not trust an Indian doctor and locals did not trust Western medicine so Dr Shankar operated a pharmacy that sold magazines and Kodak film, and developed photographs in a darkroom that was also Mrs Shankar’s sewing room. Mrs Shankar’s dresses were worn to all the top social events in Singapore, though being married to an Indian meant she was never invited to any." Parshanti pretends to be jealous of Sin Ling because Sin Ling has a job but her real goal is elsewhere. "Parshanti and I had been among the first five girls in Singapore to take the General Cambridge exam. But what good had it done us? I knew I wanted to do more with my life than fetch coffee and transcribe wireless communications. And Parshanti only wanted to get married." Sin Ling's is less starry eyed than Parshanti about marriage: "Uncle Chen had tried to persuade me, somewhat forcefully, to marry one of his employees, ‘Because a woman needs protection. And Chou Ning needs someone to take care of his old mother and five children.’"  Her dream is intellectual: "What I really wanted was to be a lady journalist like Henrietta Stackpole, who is by far the most interesting character in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. That the woman who lent it to me turned out to be a murderess didn’t change anything." It is 1936 and the magazine reading classes of the English speaking world are reeling from the King's abdication. Singaporeans have other things to worry about - not least Japan's recent invasion of Manchuria and the apparent indifference of the British: ‘The British fear the Communists more than the Japanese. Japan is also a monarchy and is not likely to disrupt social order. Britain and the British Empire will stay neutral in this conflict.’ On the very evening that the King abdicates, an Englishman proposes to a wealthy American widow who, like him, is sailing on RMS Victoria. Their wedding is set for Christmas in Singapore and the local police are put in charge of security. Parshanti, an avid reader of the gossip magazines is delighted something exciting is at last going to happen in the colonial backwater. An Englishman, a hanger-on in the betrothed couple's entourage, starts flirting with her; Parshanti falls head over heels. Sin Ling can understand why a white man would want to exploit a beautiful Eurasian girl. Sin Ling can also see that this white man is obviously not in love with the besotted Parshanti. Then the bridegroom is murdered. During the fascinating murder enquiry, where the very sensible Sin Ling is hindered by virtually everybody - with the exception the nice master chef at the Farquar Hotel (The Raffles?) - she lets slip in frustration, "I was irritated by how stupid men could be. Even the men who were supposed to be detectives wouldn’t take a female suspect seriously if they thought she was good-looking." I plead guilty to being a stupid man, but in all fairness to me, I take Sin Ling seriously. She is wise, loyal, shrewd and drily funny. If one day I get round to reading The Portrait of a Lady I will know whom to blame.

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