In 1931 a book full of thrilling adventures set mostly in Malaya appeared in London under the title A Yellow Sleuth: Being the Autobiography of “Nor Nalla” (Detective-Sergeant Federated Malay States Police). Reviewers concluded that the stories were just barely plausible, but agreed that the author knew Malaya intimately.
Nor Nalla is an anagram for Ron Allan, who spent four years working on a rubber plantation in Malaya shortly before World War I. Like Kipling’s famous colonial spy, Kim, the “yellow sleuth” is a master of undercover operations, and this reissued work explores vast locales, from the forests of Malaya to the ports of Java, from London’s underbelly to the camps of Chinese laborers in WWI Flanders. Throughout, readers are left to differentiate between fiction and fact, and ponder questions of authorship, in this “impossible fantasy of hybridity,” as Phillip Holden calls it in his perceptive introduction.
Contemporary readers will not only savor the book’s tales of adventure and detection, they will also appreciate the ways that the author brings to life— and reveals the contradictions of—late colonial society.