Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
One of the reasons that we still read golden age detective fiction today is because of the insights and details it provides into the time in which it was written. That period between the two world wars comes alive to us because of the whodunnits that were published then and that we’re still enjoying today.
But it was, at risk of sounding extremely glib, a very different time. Especially when it comes to Britain — where many of these mysteries were written and set — and its geopolitical role in the world. For instance: the British monarch for most of that interwar period was George V, and his full title was “King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India”. That was a lot of the rest of the world which still came under British colonial rule, and I think any understanding of Britishness at that time needs to take that into account.
Exploring how this history shows up in murder mysteries, and how that was experienced by readers around the world, is something I like to do on this show. In a recent episode we looked at how golden age crime writing had shaped the genre in India, and today we’re turning our attention to Singapore. There’s lots to dig into there, from the way that Singaporean and Chinese characters were incorporated by golden age writers, to how issues of colonisation in that part of the world affect the reading of these books.
My guest today is Christopher Huang, a mystery writer who grew up in Singapore loving golden age detective fiction. And he got started with the genre in the way that many of us fans do.
Chris: It started with Christie, of course, trading it with another Christie fan in school. You each get our books. We’d exchange them when we were done reading them, go to the libraries as well, we’d go pick them up. I kind of fell in love with the whole idea of the murder mystery as a game really, the idea that you are following along with the detective to try and solve it alongside with him, or, see if you can guess what it was, whodunnit before he did. I think there was only one Christie where I’ve actually managed to do that. I think I kind of spoiled the whole story for myself just by figuring out whodunnit right in the middle of the book. And the rest of it was just waiting for, was it Poirot? I think it might’ve been a Poirot mystery to figure it out for himself, but I’m rather proud of that one, all the same.
Caroline: Part of what he initially liked about the mysteries that he was reading was their settings, which introduced him to places and ideas that were very unlike his own life in Singapore. Gradually, though, he became aware that these books mostly had one thing in common.
Chris: Almost entirely set in jolly old England, those bucolic villages and of course, London. Now and then Christie would take us to Egypt and to the Middle East, but always with her particular background informing what she saw. And it was very interesting for me because for someone growing up in Singapore, it’s a bit of a different insight.
Caroline: The realisation that these books that he loved were all set somewhere else came to him gradually.
Chris: I’m not sure if there was a singular moment because for a long time, it wasn’t really just that one period that attracted me. I was going for the golden age form as a whole, the whole idea of the detective story. So I was also reading Ellis Peters who wrote her Cadfael mysteries set in the 1100s. That’s not the same period at all, not by a long shot, but the same idea, stepping into a different historical period, a different world, with different norms, which was exciting that way.
Caroline: As an outsider looking in on this vision of golden age Britain, these mysteries had an added interest for him.
Chris: You’re looking at this from the viewpoint of someone who is just a little bit further off from you. So that makes it more interesting and exciting. I guess it was for me. I guess that’s what I kind of figure adds to the charm. This idea of this viewpoint coming from somewhere further off from you.
Caroline: Quite naturally, from repeated exposure, Chris began to associate the golden age murder mystery as a form with the places where such plots were usually set — as if there was something necessary about a British or European backdrop to make these books work.
Chris:** I do think that for a long time, I was stuck into this idea that murder mysteries were a thing that happened in the West and you didn’t really see it in East. I remember discovering that Leslie Charteris, the author of The Saint, was actually born in Singapore and that he was half Chinese. So that was a fantastic thing for me.
Caroline: Leslie Charteris was born in Singapore in 1907, the son of an English mother and a Chinese father. He went to school in Singapore and then started university in England in 1925, but left King’s College Cambridge after just a year to pursue a career as a writer. He published his first book, X Esquire, which was a blend of a thriller and a detective story not unlike something like Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery, in 1927. It was with 1928’s Meet The Tiger that he hit upon the character who was going to change his life: a gentleman adventurer and Robin Hood-style ethical criminal called Simon Templar, also known as “The Saint”. Charteris would go on to write more than a hundred novels and stories about Templar, and the character spawned radio, film and television adaptations in the decades that followed. Charteris’s success, and his presence among other writers of the golden age, meant a lot to Chris.
Chris: This revelation that yes, there was this golden age author, there was this person with a phenomenal legacy behind him who was Singaporean really, he took on a pen name and I didn’t really question it at the time, but now I think that he took Charteris primarily because no one was going to publish a guy named Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin. But Charteris is on the other hand, that’s absolutely marketable. So that was revelation number one.
Caroline: There was another author — a contemporary crime writer — who helped Chris expand his idea of what a murder mystery could be.
Chris: Revelation number two later on was Ovidia Yu wrote Miss Moorthy Investigates. And I think that’s out of print now, but that was a murder mystery written by a Singaporean and set in Singapore, not in the twenties and thirties at all, but in the modern day.
But I got it in my head that yes, Singapore can be a setting for a murder mystery. Modern day Singapore in fact. That woke me up to the idea that this is universal. You could set up a murder mystery anywhere and I could do it too.
Caroline: When we were talking about this, Chris explained that in part his uncertainty about whether the golden age murder mystery could work in the places that he knew and loved rather than the classic British settings was a reflection of broader issues of national image and confidence.
Chris: Singapore is kind of self-assured nowadays, but back when I was growing up in the eighties, I think we had a little bit of an inferiority complex, if you will. And that we thought that we were so small, that nobody would ever have heard of us. I remember going on a tour with my family to Austria, across Europe and we ended up in Austria.
And the restaurant had this thing where they would sing a song from each of the home nations of the people who were visiting. So they got to Malaysia and we stood up as well because we were next to Malaysia. And of course, nobody would have heard of Singapore.
And of course the next song was from Singapore so we had to remain standing. But yeah, there was a certain amount of this sense of ‘well, nobody will have heard of us, we can’t possibly go anywhere.’
Caroline: If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, in particular the episode entitled “The Rules”, you will have heard me talk about the “rules” of detective fiction that evolved during the golden age, put together by writers like Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine. These were mostly aimed at ensuring that mystery writers “played fair” by their readers, but rule five from Knox’s list is different. It states that: “No Chinaman must figure in the story”. As an aficionado of all things golden age, I wanted to ask Chris how this had struck him when he became aware of it.
Chris: Oh, yes. Ronald Knox. Oh yeah. You know, once you understand the state of popular fiction as it was at the time, it becomes really, really clear that what he was objecting to was not Chinese people, but “Chinamen”. This vision of the Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, that the villain is always this Asian dude who knows these impenetrable secrets.
And maybe he’s got this evil but beautiful daughter who somehow falls for the white masculine hero. That was what he was objecting to, this racist stereotype. He wasn’t objecting to Chinese people as a whole, he was objecting to the stereotype that was being written into books at a time.
Caroline: And there were writers following Knox’s rule and breaking away from the “Chinaman” stereotype when including Chinese characters. The American novelist Earl Derr Biggers was one such — he created a Chinese-American character named Charlie Chan who became a success in early Hollywood films as well as in books.
Chris: There were attempts. Charlie Chan came out in what, 25 or 26. He was specifically intended to be the antithesis of Fu Manchu. He was a Chinese hero detective. That was the intention, I believe. So, even back then, there were people who are looking at the stereotypes being written and saying, this is not right.
Caroline: After the break: how to read outside your historical comfort zone.
Caroline: One of the most influential aspects of the traditional golden age mystery for Chris was the English country house — utilised regularly by a wide array of authors from Agatha Christie to Ngaio Marsh and beyond. It’s almost impossible to read widely in this genre and period without encountering it, and it’s easy to see why you might assume that it is essential to the form.
Chris: I really do like the English country house setting, I think. We didn’t really have English country houses in Singapore. It’s a very small country. We wouldn’t be able to have those expansive estates. So I think I was hampered a little by the form that I liked best, that I really liked this English country house thing, with the servants and the live in butler, these people coming in for a weekend party and somebody gets killed and all that, and not really being able to fit that into an apartment building that I knew best. So, yeah, I think it was a subconscious thing, this idea that to have what I want, I need to have this place and to have this place, I need to be in a country that has the room to have this sort of a place. But I was very young at a time and at a certain age you just absorb ideas and you don’t really question it too much. You form this preconception of how things have to be.
Caroline: Although Agatha Christie did write her fair share of country house mysteries, she also travelled far more widely than many people of her time. I’ve covered this a bit recently in relation to her time in the Middle East in the episode Agatha’s Archaeologists. I asked Chris whether he had ever felt a bit disappointed that Christie hadn’t come further east and set a mystery in Singapore or the surrounding countries.
Chris: You can’t blame her, people can’t see everything of the world. The world is really too big for any one person to hold, which is why we read extensively, different people. And why I would like to read a little bit more from outside my comfort zone, as it were.
Caroline: We’ll return to this idea of reading outside your comfort zone in a second, but first a moment of appreciation for all the additional historical details that one can learn upon rereading the work of Agatha Christie, or indeed any other golden age author, at different points in your life.
Chris: When I first read The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the whole idea of Belgian refugees washed over me as a tiny little detail that I’d notice and then forget. Now, later in life, I’m looking back at it, I’m thinking, wow, this was a really interesting detail, this was a facet of life in that time that I don’t really see anywhere else. And I’m glad that The Mysterious Affair at Styles set Poirot up as one of these Belgian refugees, because I would not have known about Belgian refugees otherwise. As far as I know, that’s the only book where I’ve ever seen that idea come up.
Caroline: While Chris continues to be a committed fan of Christie and her contemporaries for this and many other reasons, more recently he has come to the realisation that the golden age isn’t the last word on mystery fiction, especially if you’d like to see a wider range of settings and viewpoints.
Chris: As wonderful as an English country house mystery is, and as I said, I really loved that format of a mystery. I’m coming to an appreciation, a bit late in life perhaps, that you want to see more of the world, a little bit further beyond the grounds.
Caroline: Singapore became a British colony in the early 19th century, initially under the jurisdiction of British India and later under direct rule from Britain itself. It departed colonial rule in the 1960s, initially becoming part of Malaysia and then an independent republic in 1965. For a century and a half, then, Chris’s birthplace was inextricably tied to Britain and British culture, but in a way that was not always positive or equitable. When grappling with the form of Britishness presented in golden age murder mysteries, this is something that he’s had to consider closely.
Chris: I think I’m interested in both view points, really. You can’t say you’re interested in expansion of the world and to say that you don’t want one viewpoint, that just doesn’t work.
But to accept both the colonised and the colonisers, views of this thing it gives you this three dimensional image from each side. The whole relationship between colonised and coloniser it’s I think a lot more complicated than than a lot of people say and think.
In Singapore the relationship is complicated as well. Singapore is supposed to be the largest repository of British colonial architecture in the region. In many ways, we were very, very British. We drove on the same side of the roads. We adopt British spellings. A lot of the books that I grew up with were more British than American so there was that as well.
So there is I think a part of the Singaporean psyche as well that sees Britain as this parent figure in a way that kind of made it what it is today, but at the same time, there’s also an educated understanding that as the colonised, there were certain disadvantages to the position that for Singapore’s colonial history, we didn’t really have the autonomy or freedom or all that good stuff to stand on our own two feet.
And in many ways we may have been exploited by this greater power. But then on the other hand, we’ve also got all this beautiful architecture. We’ve got our standards of education. We’ve got our governmental system, which all came from Britain. We are what we are today because of Britain. So we have this difficulty of knowing that we were colonised and that’s possibly not a good thing, but where we are, you can’t say good or bad, if you take both of these things and hold them both in your hands and say, which is more important.
Caroline: We can’t change the attitudes of the past, or the kind of books that were published a hundred years ago. But we can add new titles and ideas into our reading diet, ones that expand the idea of what a murder mystery is and offer different perspectives on the complex issues that Chris has just laid out — perspectives that don’t just come from one side of that coloniser-colonised relationship. While golden age authors with Chinese heritage like Leslie Charteris are sadly rather scarce, Chris has come up with a handy way to supplement this: by reading historical fiction. That is, stories written by authors writing today that are set in the golden age period and expand the types of people and places who are included.
He recently published a very good article about this which includes lots of recommendations for authors and titles to try, which is linked in the episode description for you to read and explore at your leisure. But here are just a few options that Chris recommends if you’d like to undertake this decolonising reading project too. There’s A Rising Man and its sequels by Abir Mukherjee, which is a series set in India during the days of the British Raj. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill follows the adventures of a female lawyer in 1920s Bombay. And then there’s Ovidia Yu’s recent series, which starts with The Frangipani Tree Mystery and begins in 1930s Singapore. For Chris, these plots are strongly reminiscent of the stories that his parents and grandparents told him. This really is a growing area within crime fiction, and Chris has a good metaphor for why it’s worth paying attention to
Chris: Having new voices tell the stories of the world beyond those borders really adds to the vision of what the world was like. It’s like coming out of a cave, a very comfortable cave and seeing that you’ve got a garden outside. It’s not that the cave is bad, like I said, it’s a comfortable cave. It’s a really cozy place. It’s safe. It’s lovely. But you’ve also got this garden. It’s just more good stuff out there. And maybe it informs your cave. You realize that the colours seeping in from the cave mouth are that way because they’re being filtered through all the flowers in the garden. And you can grab some of the plants you see out there to add to your cooking, decorate your cave. It just makes for a bigger, more beautiful setting, you know?
Caroline: That said, he’s still reading golden age detective fiction too. There’s a quality of escapism about it for him that will always make it special.
Chris: I think that may be part of why I go back to the 20s and 30s. That removes it far enough away from me that even if we’re going into all these complicated issues of colonialism and exploitation and so on, it’s still removed enough that it is an escape because this is not precisely as the world is it’s as the world was. This strange and complicated thing that informs where I am, but doesn’t really touch me anymore. We’re safe now.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at https://shedunnitshow.com/lookingeast. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Many thanks to my guest, Christopher Huang. His first murder mystery, which is set in London in 1924 and stars a detective of Asian heritage, is A Gentleman’s Murder. His next book, Unnatural Ends, will be published soon.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. The show’s production assistant is Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.