The Mystery of A Yellow Sleuth: Detective Sergeant Nor Nalla, Federated Malay States Police
In 1931 a book appeared in London with the title A Yellow Sleuth: Being the Autobiography of “Nor Nalla” (Detective-Sergeant Federated Malay States Police). It was met with puzzled enthusiasm, TheStraits Times commenting that the book “presents an interesting problem of distinguishing fact from fiction”. The author claimed to be of mixed Malay and Sakai descent, fluent in many of the languages spoken in Southeast Asia, and able to pass as Malay, Sakai, Chinese, Javanese or Burmese. He began by stating that “this story will honestly recount the part I have played in the detection of crime”, but added that he had changed personal and place names, and used a pseudonym because it would “be foolish of me to advertise my identity”. He concluded, engagingly enough, “So there you have it! A true history! And, for a start you learn that it is largely untrue.”
The name Nor Nalla is an anagram, and the author has been identified as Ronald (Ron) Allan, who worked on a rubber plantation in Malaya shortly before World War I. But many questions about his authorship remain.
Nor Nalla is an “impossible fantasy of hybridity” in the words of Philip Holden’s introduction. Like Kipling’s famous colonial spy, Kim, the yellow sleuth is a master of the undercover operation, from the forests of Malaya, to the ports of Java, in London’s Chinatown and with Chinese labourers in WWI Flanders. Contemporary readers will enjoy the book’s stories of detection and adventure, but they can also savour the way the author and his narrator navigate and reveal the contradictions of late colonial society.
“a most thrilling and original narrative…” – The Spectator
“presents an interesting problem of distinguishing between fact and fiction…” – The Straits Times
“a quite astonishingly unusual autobiography…” Hutchinson & Co
”A more enthralling volume of secret service could not be desired…” – The Observer
Ronald Allan worked on a plantation in Malaya before the Great War, was gassed in Flanders, and spent the rest of his career in the City of London. He died in 1945.
Paul Kratoska is a historian and Publishing Director at NUS Press.
Philip Holden is professor of English at the National University of Singapore.