Inspector Singh investigates : A curious Indian cadaver by Shamini Flint

Inspector Singh, of the Singapore police force, might just have to look to his laurels.  Courtesy, of all unlikely people, his wife, Mrs. Singh.

In this funny, laugh-out-loud 6th instalment of the Inspector Singh series, we see the Malaysian-Singaporean Sikh going to India for the first time, to attend, of all unlikely things for such an anti-family man, a family wedding.

His wife’s family, of course.

Still on enforced sick leave after his Cambodian escapades, the good detective has no excuse for not attending the wedding of his wife’s first cousin’s daughter.

This is a high-society arranged marriage, a concept alien to Inspector Singh, but not to his good wife:

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Soon after their arrival in Mumbai, there is a suspicious death, and Inspector Singh is plunged headlong into an investigation that includes questioning many of his wife’s family.  As he tramps the dirty streets of Mumbai, lamenting the damage being done to his trademark white sneakers, Mrs. Singh stays close in the bosom of her traumatised family – and becomes, de facto, her husband’s source on the inside.

In her earlier Inspector Singh books, Ms Flint has always used the clever device of an assistant/sidekick/translator who helps the Singaporean policeman on his foreign jaunts.  This local assistant provides the detective (and we the readers) with an insight into a different society, and is the foil against which Inspector Singh views and judges the new country.

Enter Mrs. Singh, a regular visitor to India, a recent convert to the internet and the joys of Google, and now an expert on all things Indian.  She explains the country of which she is uncritically proud to her sceptical, querulous husband, who realises pretty early on that although he may look the part, he is actually 100% foreign.

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Mrs. Singh wants only to prove to her husband that India is modern.  And better than China.

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It is a masterstroke making this thin, sharp-tongued woman her husband’s assistant, for not only does it make for great humour, it also allows us to get to know Mrs. Singh better.

She finally steps out from her husband’s shadow, and becomes a brilliant character in her own right.IMG_9407

Like any first time visitor to Mumbai, the good Inspector is taken aback at the smell, the dirt, the crowds, the noise.

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Other than eating good authentic Indian food, Inspector Singh has very few desiderata.  Avoid Delhi belly and have a ride in an Ambassador car, basically.

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Ambassadors, alas, are not to be part of his Mumbai experience :IMG_9401

The plot is a clever one, keeping us guessing until the very last pages, and the ending is unexpected.  But then, Ms Flint’s endings always are.  What a clever writer she is.

I happen to know Mumbai pretty well, having lived there for several years, and so can attest to the veracity of the writer’s observations and descriptions.

What an accomplished story teller Ms Flint is, putting her finger so easily and yet so firmly on the pulse of India :

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The matching turbans and Nehru jackets are not unique to Mumbai, and up here in Delhi (where I live) they are very much a definite “statement” way of dressing.  Ms Flint is spot on.

 

Another great read, an exciting whodunnit, an exuberant foray into India and weddings and religion and progress and poverty.

And, of course, we get to spend more time with Mrs. Singh.

As I said at the outset, the good Inspector might just have to look to his laurels.

 

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A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

I am not sure at which point enthusiasm becomes embarrassing, but I’m going to risk it anyway.

In Shanghai last week to visit my son who works there, I re-read all the Inspector Chen novels with great pleasure – as I have said before in other book reviews, there is nothing quite like being in the very place you are reading about.  It’s all the delightful, insider feeling of “Ah yes, I know exactly where that street/building/park is…”

And thus it was, when I found myself, early one misty April morning, in the little park on the Bund where Inspector Chen comes across a body, that I felt seriously excited.  I knew exactly where the action took place.  I, too, was there in the cool pre-dawn mist, listening to the clock tower chime, watching people practice tai-chi…yes, I should probably stop right here, before this all becomes too gushing.

For the record, the Bund Park is now way smaller than it was in the early 1990s, the time of the novel, but there I was at the Waibaidu end of the park

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I heard the music

FullSizeRender-1The colonial architecture along the Bund is even more impressive now than it (probably) was when Chen Cao saw it :

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4

Chief Inspector Chen is an eminently likeable man.  A bachelor, an intellectual, a man who does his duty as a policeman even though it might oftentimes run counter to the all-important political needs of The Party.  He is something of an enigma to his colleagues –  a quiet, low-key, almost-reluctant policeman, who would rather be writing poetry much of the time.  This air of impenetrability around Chief Inspector Chen means that it is all the more to the credit of his assistant Detective Yu, that the latter trusts him so instinctively, and watches his back at every twist and turn.

Inspector Yu is a wonderful character.  No jolly side-kick here, but an older, poorly paid man whose youth was wasted by the Cultural Revolution, leaving him stuck without an education in a low-paying job.  His initial resentment of his younger, intellectual, better-paid boss has all but evaporated now, and even though he cannot always fathom his boss, he admires him and is fiercely loyal.

There is a death and a missing person in this book, but neither we nor the Shanghai police are sure whether they are connected.

What is fascinating about the Chief Inspector Chen books is not simply the whodunnit aspects of the stories, but also their setting –  Shanghai in the early 1990s, with the memory of Tiananmen still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the gradual, tentative emergence of capitalism, despite the strong grip The Party, Internal Security and the all-powerful state holds over the country.

Chen Cao is a man caught in the midst of these changes.  Young enough to have escaped the ravages and the waste of the Cultural Revolution – a theme that is a leitmotif through Qiu Xiaolong’s writing – and a man seen by the party to have a future, and treated accordingly, he is nevertheless a government employee on a paltry salary, battling his way on and off hot, over-crowded buses and metros, and often amazed by the way the other half lives.

Chen Cao is deputed to accompany an American marshal, Catherine Rohn, who is coming to Shanghai to escort the wife of a Chinese man the Americans have in a witness protection programme.  Feng Dexiang is thought to be involved in human trafficking to the US, but has decided to cooperate with the Americans to save his skin –  but won’t talk unless his wife, Wen Liping joins him.  So Inspector Rohn, a pretty blonde Chinese speaking young woman, has been sent out to escort Wen to the US.

Except, Wen cannot be found.

And that is all I am going to tell you, otherwise it will spoil the plot for you.

There is travel to Fujian province in search of Wen, there are long train journeys, there is food galore, there is the barest hint of romance, and there is the totally fascinating, ever-evolving city of Shanghai, with its karaoke bars and banquets, its desperate housing shortage and traffic jams, with its tea houses and, as long as we have Chen Cao as our likeable hero, lots of poetry.

Lots and lots of poetry.

And food.

And tea.

 

Highly recommended.

Published originally by Soho Press, 01 Sep 2003

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The Himalayan Concerto by John Masters

You shouldn’t have to know a place and/or physically be in a place to enjoy a book, but there really is nothing like sitting in the Himalayas, relishing a book about the Himalayas.

John Masters’ “The Himalayan Concerto” was written in 1975, published in 1976, and purports to take place in 1979, and yet nearly 40 years on is still pertinent and quite alarmingly up to date.

 

Reading this book in Leh, the atmospheric little capital of Ladakh, while acclimatising for a climbing expedition to Chamser Kangri…no, wait, sorry…our climbing permit was refused because of a Chinese incursion over the border into Ladakh…as I was saying, this book about the balance of power in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s remains as pertinent today as when Mr. Masters wrote it.

Quite alarmingly pertinent, in fact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Rodney Bateman, a British composer from a family that has long loved and served in India, but is currently unhappily married to an Indian.  Rodney is trying to write his Himalayan Concerto, about the music that binds the mountains and the adjoining countries, and as he travels the length and breadth of the mountains, he is also trying to sort out his own personal life.  Plus investigating some strange happenings on the Tibetan border for the Indian government.  His cover – travelling to research music –  affords him a degree of freedom to wander and chat, and he willingly undertakes to observe whatever is going on and report back to the Indian authorities.

Call it nostalgia, but I love the idea of a foreigner, but one who is known to love India, being co-opted to  – well –  spy for India.  This is a world of climbing, and fishing, and camping, and Kashmiri houseboats, and little private planes dropping off supplies in the highest most unreachable parts of the Himalayas.

That world has long since gone, but the charm of this story remains bang up-to-date, with its twists and turns and politics and downright “old fashioned” adventure.  Mr. Masters writes about Chinese incursions into India, and the Maoist threat in Bengal, and Pakistani sabre rattling…yes, 40 years down the line, open the Indian papers and what do you get?

A good old nostalgic read for a way of life that has gone, and yet…

 

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

It was my son’s moving to Shanghai with his job that prompted my fearsomely well-read sister to recommend the Chief Inspector Chen mysteries, and having just concluded the third in the series, back to back, I am beyond hooked.

 

And as soon as I have written my reviews, I shall promptly start on the next book in the series.

There is always something delicious about recognising names and places in a book, so to read these books in Shanghai, as I did, was even more exciting. But even without the “being there” thrill of these novels, Qiu Xiaolong’s books offer a wonderful insight into China in the early 1990s, as the country grappled with huge, rapid changes. Prior to our trip to Shanghai last week, we had last visited the city in 1992 and then 1993, which is exactly the time of these novels.

 

So, yes, as you may have gathered, I am a fan.

The first in the Chief Inspector Chen murder mysteries is “Death of a Red Heroine” in which we meet the poetry loving, English-speaking, thoughtful policeman who is clearly on the road to great things in the emerging China, but is more than a little uncomfortable about the choices and the realities of politics vs police work vs his beloved writing.

Chen Cao is a fascinating man, and as he heads the investigation into the murder of a model worker, you admire his determination to get at the truth, however uncomfortable that truth may be for him personally and for his political bosses.  He is a man uniquely positioned at the crossroads in his country and his city, and his doubts and misgivings make him all the more human and eminently likeable.

The insights into Shanghai life and living are an eye-opener, and we feel privileged to see the city from an insider’s unvarnished perspective – the cramped housing, the packed buses, the privileged life of the HCCs (High Cadres’ Children) who lead a life in a parallel universe to the hard-working, underpaid policemen. The children of senior party official live in beautiful homes, have access to every conceivable luxury, and generally consider themselves to be a breed apart, well above the law.
It is into this rarified world that Chief Inspector Chen Cao’s investigation leads him.

Mr Qiu writes in English, his second language, and all I can say is, hats off to him.

The writing style isn’t particularly scintillating, but the story line is so powerful and compelling that you are swept along. Mr. Qiu write about the politics of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, about the educated youths whose lives were turned upside down and very often ruined, by their years of enforced living in the villages. All of this woven into a murder investigation whose ramifications lead Chan and his older, loyal but slightly resentful No. 2, Inspector Yu, into uncharted political territory.

The noise and the crowds of Shanghai, the streets, the bicycles, the heat and the food – oh, the food – are vividly depicted, and as you read, you feel you are right there in that fabulous city.  I was actually lucky enough to be there when I read this novel, but the story is so strong that it speaks across geographical boundaries.

Mixing politics with police work (and lots of food) in an emerging China means “Death of a Red Heroine” is so much more than just a murder mystery.  It is mystery + politics +social commentary + yes, lots and lots of food.

A great read, and I am just a little sad that it has taken me all these years to discover such a great writer. But better late etc etc.

Published in 2000.

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Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux

The book had sat on my shelf, puzzingly unread, for 13 years.

And then we went to Hong Kong on holiday and “Kowloon Tong” went along too.

Reading a book about the place where you are staying is always fun, with the added piquancy of recognising names and places.  This is a wonderful read in any case, but reading it in situ was marvellous.

The novel is set in the last year of British colonial rule in Hong Kong, before the 1997 handover to China.  Or. as Mrs. Betty Mullard scathingly calls it, “the Chinese Takeaway.”

Betty and her 43 year old, unmarried, balding son Bunt are British, trapped in a damp, colonial time-warp.  They loathe most things Chinese, especially the food, have never bothered to visit, and aren’t remotely curious about so doing.  They lead a predictable, dull, uneventful life in Albion Cottage, looked after by Wang their silent servant, and the colour and noise and smells and politics of China and Hong Kong pass them by.

As the handover date looms ever closer, a mysterious Mr. Hung shows up and almost without their realising it, he has bought their factory.

Money makes Betty happier, and she initially takes quite a shine to the well-spoken Mr. Hung.  Bunt is less convinced, and as he realises his days in the colony, and at the helm of Imperial Stitching, are numbered, his normally well-planned, uneventful life descends into a vortex of horror and fear and – surprisingly – love.

The culture clash between The East and the Mullards is sharply drawn.  The increasing air of threat and menace that hangs over the book is superbly described, and by the end, I was turning the pages as quickly as I could to find out what happened, and then felt saddened that this marvellous book had ended.

A moving, gripping book.  I loved it.

Published by Penguin in 1997, the paperback I have cost £5.99 but it was bought 13 years ago…

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BRAVE DRAGONS by JIM YARDLEY

Before I even start writing the review – disclosure time.

I am in book club in Delhi with the author’s wife, Theo.  So I am not totally impartial, especially since we were all privy to some of the labour pains involved in the final stages of this fascinating book.  I cyber-followed Jim’s book tour earlier this year with great interest, and we ladies of book club were all happy that Theo could join him for part of it.

Secondly, I am not in the least a sports fan, know absolutely nothing about basketball, and have never even watched a single match, not even on TV.

So, I approached this book from a different perspective, to be honest, much more intent on the culture clashing promised on the title page than the ins and outs of basketball.

Right.

Review time.

First things first – loved the look and the feel of the book – a nice hardback, and those slightly uneven, rough-cut pages were reassuringly solid and real, if that makes any sense.

Mr. Yardley – oh what the heck, may I call you Jim ? –  so Jim Yardley, clearly a basketball fan of serious note, used to live in China, where he was the foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

His book chronicles the ups and downs and oftentimes downright bizarreness of a not very good Chinese basketball team that employs an American coach.

Culture clash doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The author spends lots of time with the team and the looser entourage of translators, coaches, and trainers in the unattractive, gritty, highly polluted industrial city of Taiyuan.  He stays in Taiyuan, he travels with the team throughout China, and is clearly both a sounding board and a listening post for both the Chinese and the handful of Americans caught up in the world of the “Shanxi Brave Dragons.”

Jim Yardley’s approach to the story of the Brave Dragons, the sometimes hapless team whose fortunes form the core story of the book, is to chat around and about the subject of basketball and the games, and then through this prism, introduce us to background sporting history, his thoughts on Chinese politics, and his wry, often hilarious observations of Chinese society.

It was the latter that made the book for me.

Sure, I was happy that the Brave Dragons ended the season ranked 10th (surely not a plot spoiler ?) but the whole sporty aspect of the book didn’t enthuse me as much as the author’s often beautiful writing about China.

You see, the trouble for me with the basketball bits was, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really follow the nuances.

Some of it was almost impenetrable :

 

 

 

 

I have no idea what an alley oop dunk is, but it does sounds amazing, I have to say :

 

Where Jim Yardley is unsurpassed is when he describes the China in which he lives, a country evolving every day, eager for change yet sometimes afraid of it. Anxious to understand American culture and oftentimes failing totally –  which is more than can be said for most of the American players who appear disinterested by China and the Chinese, intent only on money and winning the game their way, and with no interest whatsoever in trying to learn any of the language of their host country.

The author’s descriptions of the smoky, dirty, noisy city of Yaiyuan bring the place to life, warts and all :

He has a fine eye for people, both their appearance and their conversation.  Garrison Guo  –  a translator –  is one of the nicest people in this cast of amazing characters and from the first moment he walks into the pages of the book, I was hooked :

A soufflé of 1970s hair –  now how gorgeous a description is that ?

 Guo’s English is good, and this is – amazingly –  why :

We presume Garrison didn’t learn English the “Crazy Emglish” way :

 

There is a certain amount –  no, correction – lots of linguistic tangles, but these are so well handled by Jim Yardley that you laugh along with the Chinese players, never laugh at them.  The author writes with a sensitive helping hand.  The hilarious “groove” moment is a case in point :

 

Jim Yardley is equally perceptive when it comes to his fellow ex-pats, closel guarding their hard-earned China expertise :

During a noisy taxi ride along shockingly awful roads with Garrison, the latter asks Jim Yardley a question.  The author’s answer is, in essence, the explanation of why he wrote the book :

 

These cultural tangles, the author’s attempts to understand them himself and then explain them to us are the backbone of this funny, informative look at politics, economy, history –  and, of course, his beloved basketball –  alley oop dunks included.

 

The hardback edition of “Brave Dragons” was published by Knopf in 2012 and sells for US$ 26.95

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BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by DAI SIJIE

This slim, charming novel about one of the darkest periods in recent Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, manages to combine ugliness and brutishness with a life-saving thread of hope and young love and dreams.

It is 1971, and 2 young men, teenaged sons of then-reviled intellectuals, are sent off to be re-educated, in a remote corner of China.  Their new home, a dirt-poor village, is dominated by the poetically named “Phoenix of the Sky”.  In other words a forbidding slightly terrifying mountain, whose presence and moods dominate the novel.

The 2 youngsters survive in the village.

Just.

Their smuggled-in violin provides some moments of relief from the otherwise soul-destroying manual labour to which they are subjected.  When they chance upon a hidden trunk, filled with books –  books, forbidden books – of translations of 19th century French classics, they grasp at the chance to read, after months of privation.

Books and stories and weaving happiness through words and music is the leitmotiv of this book.  Luo (the narrator’s friend) is a natural story-teller, and once the trust of the suspicious village headman has been won, the 2 young men are occasionally dispatched to the neighbouring small town of Yong Jing to watch whatever film is showing.  They then return, and tell the story to the villagers over many sessions.

This power to tell stories wins Luo the heart of the Little Seamstress, the daughter of an itinerant tailor.  She is far and away the prettiest girl on the mountain, and Luo endures terrifying walks up and down the mountain to court her.

He reads to her, tells her stories, all in an attempt to “better” her, and their love develops under the wistful eye of the narrator and the spying eye of an old miller.

The end of the novel is dramatic and sad.

The Little Seamstress walks –  at times literally runs –  down the mountain, out of the book, and out of their lives.

And a heart-broken, drunken Luo burns the books that had kindled their love.

Charming, full of descriptions that bring to life the damp, cold, poor countryside of Mao’s Revolutionary China, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is published by Vintage Books.

The novel was originally published in French in 2000 and the English translation in 2001.  The paperback costs £7.99

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