Frangipani trees are often planted near temples and graveyards, where the fresh flowers decorate the graves daily. People associate them with remembered love and with immortality because of how their branches produce leaves and flowers even after being cut off.
I remember my grandmother applying creamy frangipani sap to my skin to soothe rashes when I was a child. It was my Ah Ma who brought me up after I recovered from polio. She sent me to school even though I was a ‘bad luck’ girl whose parents had died, which is how I got to work with Chief Inspector Le Froy.
The British Empire may no longer be the glorious power it once was, and there are rumours that everything will collapse once the playboy crown prince takes over. But here in Singapore, British law is enforced by Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy with the help of yours truly, secretarial assistant and local advisor, Chen Su Lin (Miss).
Another thing about the frangipani tree is that its wood doesn’t burn except in extreme temperatures. Which is why the body found this morning outside the charcoal seller’s back door was still recognisable as Lieutenant Willard Bruce.
First, the history: Two weeks ago, three royal servicemen accused a charcoal seller of an unprovoked attack with a metal poker, causing them to be put on charge for returning late and in déshabillé.
(Word on the street was that the drunken men had stopped the charcoal seller’s wife and daughter returning with their pull-cart after a night delivery. They had grabbed and kissed the eleven-year-old girl, punching her mother to the ground when she tried to stop them, then chased the child into the shop and up the ladder to the family quarters above. The returning charcoal seller drove them off with his charcoal poker.)
The magistrate dismissed the men’s claim, based on the mother’s black eye and broken arm, the scratches on the girl’s face and legs and the fact that one of the men had left his trousers and underpants in the upstairs room.
But one of the servicemen had an important relative in the British Royal Fleet. After Willard Bruce’s uncle complained to Government House protesting the injustice to his nephew, the magistrate was suspended and the charcoal seller and his wife and daughter put in prison for ‘rioting’.
And now Lt Willard Bruce was dead.
We were looking at the body on its clumsy pyre when Colonel Henry Bruce stormed up, “Clearly the local man took revenge! Le Froy, I want him and all his relatives rounded up and you’ll beat the truth out of them or I’ll have your job too. Damned locals and their gangs and revenge!”
“Locals wouldn’t have used cut branches from the frangipani tree,” I protested. “It’s bad luck. Plus it doesn’t burn.”
“Lt Bruce’s friends say the charcoal seller’s daughter sent him a note to meet her.”
“It was a lure. Arrest her too.”
“Colonel, the girl and her parents are still in detention on your previous charges.”
The Colonel looked confused, “Still?”
“Yes,” said Le Froy. “Last night your nephew and two of his friends were heard to say they were going to teach some native slut a lesson and your nephew and his friends were observed stealing a ladder and two axes from the Fire Defence unit.”
“Nothing wrong with borrowing a ladder,” muttered the Colonel.
“The ladder seems to have formed part of this bonfire,” Le Froy looked down at the blackened tangle.
“Still, you’ll have to arrest somebody. If the natives think they can get away with attacking and killing our men there’ll be chaos and there’s enough trouble as it is!”
“It might have been an accident,” I said. “If Lt Bruce thought there was a fire upstairs and tried to rescue the people inside, your nephew might have fallen and broken his neck.” That might have been believable if his friends hadn’t used branches of the frangipani tree in their drunken attempt to cover up.
Colonel Bruce looked dubious.
Le Froy’s years in Singapore had made him Asian enough to understand the importance of giving face, especially to British Officers, “Your nephew would be a hero,” he said.
“True, true. Dashed uncontrollable, Willard was. Who would have thought he’d end up a hero. I’ll take care of that. You’ll see to… all this?”
And with the ringleader gone, it would be safe to release the charcoal seller and his family from prison.
Sometimes good government is about making the people in power look good, because only then can the rest of us can live in peace. But like the branches of the frangipani tree, we’ll survive.
You can read more about Chen Su Lin in The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first book in the NEW “Crown Colony” mystery series.
First in a delightfully charming crime series set in 1930s Singapore, introducing amateur sleuth SuLin, a local girl stepping in as governess for the Acting Governor of Singapore.
1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin’s daughter dies suddenly – and in mysterious circumstances – mission school-educated local girl SuLin – an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage – is invited to take her place.
But then another murder at the residence occurs and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all SuLin’s traditional skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy solve the murders – and escape with her own life.
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About the author
Ovidia Yu was born in, lives in and writes about Singapore. After a happy childhood spent reading, drawing comics and dramatizing stories, she dropped out of medical school because while medicine is fascinating, she didn’t want to be a doctor.
Fortunately, friends and family have forgiven her for that as well as for writing about them. (Yes, even relatives who now spend family reunions claiming/denying Aunty Lee’s habits and quirks).
Ovidia has written The Frangipani Tree Mystery, Meddling and Murder (An Aunty Lee Mystery), Aunty Lee’s Delights, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials, and Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge.
All comments are welcomed.