Inspector Singh Investigates: A deadly Cambodian crime spree by Shamini Flint

I am an unabashed fan of the Inspector Singh series, so please don’t misunderstand me when I say that “A deadly Cambodian crime spree” is possibly the best book in the series thus far.

The previous three books are all brilliant reads, don’t get me wrong.  Good, funny, insightful, all-round great detective novels.

But the Cambodian story reaches new heights.

Not only is it a cracking whodunnit, as we have come to expect from Ms Flint, but in this book we see Inspector Singh confront issues of morality on a colossal scale.  And in the process, we learn so much more about this larger than life man, whom up until now we know delights in irritating his Chinese bosses as he stubbornly refuses to conform to the Singaporean notion of policing.

But in this book we see him out of his usual world and confronted with the on-going trauma of a collective genocide that makes his hunt for the murderer of a trial witness at times seem a puny task. What is one death amongst so many millions?

But Inspector Singh has his own moral touchstone. He is a policeman and as such he will hunt down the killer of one man, whilst attending the court hearings into the genocide trials.

Sent to be the ASEAN watchdog at the War Crimes Tribunal in Phonm Penh, the Singaporean Sikh copper enters a realm of such collective evil and horror that he (and we the reader) often recoil in disbelief at the testimony we listen to. This was one of the aspects of this book that differentiates it from its predecessors – the delving into the history of this poor benighted country.

But all this is not to say that our good Inspector has lost his zest for life. True, Cambodia and the things he hears in court shake this good man to his moral core, but that doesn’t stop him being hungry all the time, and irritated that his trademark white sneakers get dirty as he pounds the dusty streets of Phonm Penh.

He hates the local food, hates the heat, is captivated by a beautiful, enigmatic Cambodian woman called Sovann, and, if the truth be known, he may just have met his match in his local sidekick, the feisty, outspoken, hard-working, driven Chhean.  She is a brilliant character, an orphan searching for her own missing family, and outspokenly contemptuous of the Cambodian police and the Cambodian government.

This delightful young lady is also unable to restrict herself to the limited role of being Singh’s interpreter.  Thank goodness that Chhean doesn’t just stick to translating from Khmer for the good Punjabi Inspector, because her no nonsense approach and her ability to deliver great hit-the-nail-on-the-head oneliners are one of the many joys of this book.

In Menhay, the embattled local policeman tasked to ensure the tribunal is seen to run efficiently, we have a fascinating man.  Stubborn, honest in a country where an honest cop is, seemingly, an uber-rare commodity, we watch the growing relationship between Singh and Menhay, as they are made joint in charge of the murder investigation that threatens the future of the tribunal.

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As Inspector Singh delves deeper into the nitty gritty of Cambodia, he reflects (almost wistfully) on clean little Singapore :

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He is also forced –  for a moment –  to reflect on the nature of family.  So many Cambodians are desperately searching for their loved ones or for closure about their disappearnce.  Chhean, poor girl, has no family and would love one.  Inspector Singh has a rare, fleeting moment of familial insight :

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I loved this book, not only for the story and the brilliant plot, for the trademark humour and Singh’s observations about Cambodia, but also for the fact that this enjoyable story is encased within a wider scenario. I was moved by the horrors we hear about, and, like the good Inspector, ashamed that I knew so little about the recent history of this country.  Inspector Singh is growing in stature before our eyes – he may also be growing in girth, too – and he gets simply more and more delightful.

The ending of the book is spectacular.

Another excellent novel, and one that I cannot recommend too highly.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, simply click on the link below:

Inspector Singh investigates : The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

Yup, guilty as charged

I am indeed becoming a bit of an Inspector Singh junkie, having just polished off the third in the series in the space of a week.

And books 4-6 are downloaded and ready to go.

In the third book in the series, Inspector Singh is on home turf, trying to find out who murdered a lawyer in a big international law firm.  Questioning highly trained lawyers was never going to be a cake walk and the good Inspector finds himself tackling a wall of corporate solidarity.  But, as he soon discovers, his irritating orders to investigate in the lawyers’ offices rather than at police HQ, to try and keep the press off the trail, does have some unexpected benefits:
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Unlike the first two books in the series, where the overweight, chain-smoking, beer-loving detective was working overseas, first in Malaysia and then in Indonesia, in “The Singapore School of Villainy ” we get to see Inspector Singh in his home environment. And that means we finally get to meet Mrs. Singh, a woman who is very concerned about her reputation within the Singaporean Sikh community.  Since one of the lawyers who may be a possible suspect is not only a young unmarried Sikh boy, but also one to whom she is very, very distantly related, it is especially galling that her husband is seemingly unable to nail the culprit, when all the world and its wife and the local press and her sisters knows who has done it. (The wife.  Or the second wife. Open and shut case.)

Here Mrs. Singh defends the young Sikh man she doesn’t know –  but he is a Sikh, and is very very distant family, from India :

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As in the previous two novels, Inspector Singh has a sidekick appointed to work with him – and cleverly, this is never the same person –  and it is always someone who is initially very uncomfortable around his unorthodox way of working.  And this being Singapore, the young local policeman seconded to this murder investigation is beyond nervous at his boss’s unconventional approach and what it might do to his own shiny-new career prospects.

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For this is, after all, Singapore, a place where there are relatively few murders, and hardly ever a high profile one.

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Singh, too, initially despairs of Corporal Fong, who keeps jumping to attention and is terrified of putting a foot wrong.

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Ms Flint is, as ever, spot-on-perfect with he characterisation of the Chinese, the ex-pats, the Indians and the Filipinas who people this whodunnit.

One suspects that she doesn’t have much time for the entitled culture of European ex-pats.

Or perhaps it is just the portly Inspector Singh who doesn’t:

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Ms Flint’s description of the hefty Singh sisters is oh-so-accurate:
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I live in India, in New Delhi, so the baggy-trousered matrons ring true, as do the flappy arms:

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This third novel in the series brings us closer to understanding Inspector Singh the man, as opposed to Inspector Singh the cheerfully rule-bending policeman who irritates the living daylights out of his superiors.  We see him, for example, in the presence of his wife, and sprawled in his comfy chair at home, and in this book, on his home turf, he seems to be more personally concerned about some of his suspects.  The end of the novel is bleaker and darker and more moving than anything we have seen of Inspector Singh thus far.  He becomes a more rounded character in this book (no pun intended), moving beyond his fat wheezy persona to a man with deep emotions, and he is all the more endearing for it.

But nevertheless, Singh the slightly ridiculous caricatural character (and fully aware of his own image) is as funny as ever:

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He is nobody’s fool, and is realistic enough to know that he is a square peg in a round hole – an unorthodox Indian cop in an orderly Chinese set up:

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Anyway, that’s enough from me.  I’m worried that if I share any more thoughts with you I may inadvertently spoil the plot, which is – as ever – a cracker, keeping you guessing until the last chapter.  Actually, if I can boast a wee bit, I sort-of-guessed who the murder might be, but, like the good Inspector, didn’t want it to be true.

Great read.

Recommended.

Go on, order the book right now.  You won’t regret it.  And if you want to order Book 1 and Book 2, just click on the relevant links.

Inspector Singh Investigates : A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul by Shamini Flint

No sooner had I finished the first Inspector Singh novel, than I started on the second – and books 3-6 are already stacked up and waiting on my Kindle – so addicted have I become to these murder mysteries set in SE Asia, and starring the wonderful overweight, chain-smoking, wheezy, unconventional Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police.

The second chapter of Inspector Singh’s adventures opens in Bali, an island devastated by the Bali bombings, nearly empty of tourists, and where the maverick Inspector has been sent to help the Indonesian authorities, despite the fact that he knows nothing about counter-terrorism.  He has pointed this fact out to his bosses, but they seem delighted to be rid of him for a while.

For his (presumed) sins, Singh has a partner, the larger than life, overweight, informal Bronwyn Taylor, of the Australian Federal Police.

Both of them have been despatched by their relative countries to help with security and counter-terrorism measures after the bombings, and since Singh knows his bosses back in Singapore are looking for any excuse to turf out such an unconventional, un-Singaporean, copper he has to get on with Bronwyn.  Which he doesn’t find easy.

She is flippant, and way too informal for Inspector Singh :

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He fumes silently to himself:

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And then the tables turn a little when they discover that amongst the heart-rending remains of badly burned and shattered bodies there is one fragment –  for that is all that remains – with a bullet hole through the skull.

And these 2 unlikely partners launch a murder investigation in the middle of a massive terrorism situation.  Only now Sigh has the upper professional hand, since he knows a whole lot about murder (and nothing about counter-terrorism) whereas the affable Bronwyn is a complete rookie in murder investigations –  but takes to it with great enthusiasm and a cheerful willingness to do Singh’s often ill-tempered bidding.

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He, of course, being the kind man he is, behind his gruff exterior, warms to her, for (like him) she is in the professional doghouse :

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Ms Flint writes with great skill, weaving her exciting whodunnit against the background of a country traumatised by the violent bombings, by the religious divide, by the sudden exit of the tourists who are the backbone of the Balinese economy.

Ms Flint writes, without ever flinching, about the un-PC fact of life that the Muslim immigrants into Bali are deeply resented by the easy-going Hindu locals:

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The Muslims immigrants from Sulawesi are equally contemptuous of the Balinese Hindus and the foreigners who live in Bali, and none more so than the family of Ghani, whose docile wife Nuri develops in front of our eyes into a wonderful young woman.  She is shocked by much of what she sees in Bali, but as the book progresses she is increasingly disenchanted by her much older husband and her bossy brothers:

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Ms Flint writes with equal skill about the foreigners, who have stayed on despite the attacks.  They are a motley crew, at odds with each other, drinking too much, and sticking together simply because they are all white  This is Inspector Singh on the ex-pats he has to interview for the murder enquiry :

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And this is a young Balinese policeman deputed to help Inspector Singh:

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Ms Flint has her finger totally on the Asian pulse.  This extract below, describing the driving style of their wrap-around-sunglassed driver who wants to sell them anything and everything, talks non-stop, and turns out to be a fabulous bloke.

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I live in India, and shortly before reading the extract (above) I had been driving for 10 hours through rural north India.  Yup, I had an aching leg from instinctive, imaginary braking, too.

The murder investigation is absorbing, and the depiction of the poor, gentle Balinese trying to move on from such a tragedy is tenderly written.

I won’t spoil the plot by telling you anything more (of course I wouldn’t do that to you) – but suffice it to say that I had tears in my eyes in the closing pages.

A great read, with a great central character, the irrepressible Inspector Singh.

Thoroughly recommended.

 

If you have enjoyed this review and wish to buy the book, then simply click on either of the links below :

 

Inspector Singh Investigates : A most peculiar Malaysian murder

Tell you, gotta love the internet and this whole global village vibe.

Here is the tale of an online comment from a South African friend in Cape Town, about a book I reviewed, sitting here in Delhi, about Shanghai (you are following me here?) in which she recommended Shamini Flint’s books about a Singaporean detective.  After reading just the first book, I am already a loyal fan.  Books 2 and 3 already downloaded and ready to go.

Inspector Singh is going to be a great character, and a hugely likeable one at that. I just know it.

A middle aged, overweight Singaporean Sikh, we meet him at Changi Airport, waiting to fly to Malaysia, where he has been sent to work on a case that sounds distinctly like a poisoned chalice.

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Alan Lee, a wealthy Malaysian tycoon has been shot, and his estranged Singaporean wife, with whom he was locked in a bitter religious-based custody battle, has been arrested for his murder.  And that is why Inspector Singh is in Kuala Lumpur. To try and find who murdered Alan Lee and to try and protect the interests of his fellow citizen, Chelsea Liew.

Inspector Singh is fully aware that he is regarded as an oddity in the Singapore police force – he knows he is considered as the unofficial “most likely to be forced into early retirement” candidate.  And this tricky, convoluted case, which has all of Malaysia and Singapore gripped by its high-voltage drama and religious implications, is his, and his alone, to solve.

Just look at Inspector Singh for a moment.

He is a smoker in Singapore, of all nanny states to live in.

He wears white sneakers instead of sensible black shoes.

He has (possibly) too many pens in his shirt pocket.

He eats too much, he smokes too much, and he really can’t be bothered with excessive procedure.

He is a guts feel copper of the old school, and only wants to get results – arrest the murderer – regardless of political fallout and considerations.

As I said, hugely likeable and an instantly great character.

Ms Flint is a confident and eloquent storyteller, and shines lights on many aspects of Malaysia, as only an insider can.  Religion, for one, and the frightening ramifications it can have for a family.  The environment –  the brutal deforestation of Borneo is a very palpable presence in this murder investigation.  The author highlights cultural nuances and differences with a consummate light hand.

Inspector Singh –  a Sikh, of Indian origin –  is wearily aware of global ignorance about dark men in turbans.

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Chelsea Liew, caught up in a from-beyond-the-grave tale of horrors, develops before our very eyes from a resigned monosyllabic hostile victim to a woman of huge courage, whom we cheer for all the way – well I did, and as for the final glimpse we have of her…Don’t worry, no plot-spoiler here, but our final moments with Chelsea are heart-stopping and gripping, that’s all I’ll say.

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Read this great book for a thoroughly enjoyable whodunnit, as well as for a portrait of a country and her people.

Hugely recommended.

If you feel like buying the book after reading the review, it couldn’t be easier.  Simply click on the links below:

THE DEAD AMERICAN by JAKE NEEDHAM

The good news: Inspector Samuel Tay of the Singapore CID is back, and is turning into a regular old curmudgeon.

The bad news: since this third instalment in what I pray is going to be an endless series of novels, was only published a few weeks ago, there may be a bit of a wait now until the 4th book appears.

No pressure, Mr. Needham, you understand.

Oh Sam.  What a bloke.

In this book, the Inspector hits 50, with only his resigned quietly likeable sidekick, the long suffering Sergeant Kang for company.

All of Sam’s old fogey-isms are now an inherent part of his character, and I, for one, love him all the more for them.

Not great with technology:

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Not mad about the Americans:

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A defiant smoker in a country that tried to outlaw the habit as much as possible :

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Like the previous 2 novels in the Inspector Tay series, “The Dead American” opens with panache:

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The annoyingly familiar Emma  –  an American journalist –  arrives at his doorstep to enlist his help in solving what she considers to be a mystery.  A young American has been found hanging in his apartment.  The Singaporean authorities say he committed suicide.  She isn’t convinced.  And against his initial better judgement, Sam Tay gets slowly dragged into the mystery as to why this young software engineer (working, to Tay’s befuddlement, on the technology behind driverless cars) would be murdered.

As we have now come to expect with these great whodunnits, Singapore is a brilliant backdrop.  Way too clean and orderly for Sam’s liking, and full of people too ready to accept the official line, and then toe it.

I mentioned in my last review that such is the force of Sam’s personality that he makes a non-smoker like me cheer every time he lights up.  For the truth of the matter is, that despite its best efforts, the Singaporean government just cannot stop Sam loving his tobacco fix, and his pre-smoking rituals:

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This book takes us through the malls and hotels of Singapore suffering from regional pollution, but –  true to form –  Inspector Tay is unimpressed by the official hoopla:

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We walk through lobbies and coffee shops, we walk along the river front, we see the “new” Singapore through the eyes of Sam, who hankers for the old days.  In what his now his trademark style, the author seamlessly mixes real Singapore with fictional characters, an extremely effective technique.

We also meet Sam’s mother, who is fast becoming a bit of a rockstar in her own right.  (You’ll see what I mean when you read the book.)  And read it you should, if you love good witty writing that makes you smile all the time, a brilliant unconventional detective, and an insight into how one of Asia’s most successful countries tick.

Can’t wait for the next book.

I’m a big fan.

I’m also a big fan of Jake Needham, who has managed to irritate a country, and get himself into a bit of a spot in the bargain.  Let him tell you in his own words.

If you would like to buy “The Dead American”, just click below.  Technology that might well perplex Sam, but you all know how it works.  And as you now realise, it’s only available as an e-book.

And this week, guess what, I read about Google’s driverless cars.

 

THE UMBRELLA MAN by JAKE NEEDHAM

Having developed a bit of an infatuation with Inspector Samuel Tay, right from the moment I encountered him in “The Ambassador’s Wife”, I am happy to announce that he is still every bit my hero/anti-hero in the second of what one hopes will be an endless series of crime whodunnits.

Just like the first Inspector Tay novel, “The Umbrella Man” starts out with a bang, plunging the reader straight into the action. This time, however, the bang isn’t just  a metaphor.  Singapore explodes, as a series of bombs rips the heart out of Orchard Road.  The descriptions of the terror and destruction of one of the world’s major shopping streets is chilling.

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Sometimes, where you are physically when you read a book, or write down your thoughts (like here, in this review) does impact you.  So the fact that I am writing this while my daughter tells me from her carphone that there are bomb threats in Delhi, as she drives home through lunatic traffic, only made these scenes of the book even more frightening.

Mr. Needham skilfully weaves fact and fiction together, putting his fictional characters in real life Singaporean locations.  When he talks of  Ngee Ann City, one knows exactly where the drama is taking place.  The corner of Scott and Orchard Road, and the poor Marriott hotel, which featured so unflatteringly in the opening scene of “The Ambassador’s Wife”, bear the brunt of the explosions.  But who would do this?  Who would attack Singapore?  What had this tiny country done to “deserve” such an attack?

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The heart is ripped out of the tiny island state, and Inspector Tay is eager to be part of the team investigating this unprecedented horror.  But his previous run in with the Americans in “The Ambassador’s Wife” means that he is off the team.  The Americans bring pressure to bear and the Singaporeans bow to them, and Inspector Tay of the CID is sidelined.  And is furious.

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Never a big fan of the Americans at the best of times, this situation only inflames his temper and Grumpy-Old-Man-ism:

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He sulks, he mooches around, his poor Sergeant bears the brunt of his temper :

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And of course he thinks and smokes and thinks some more and smokes a lot more and…but I am not going to spoil the plot, never fear.

Themes that began in the first book are continued here –  his dislike for the Americans for example.  His love of smoking, which is such a no-no in Singapore that he takes a positive pleasure in smoking wherever and whenever he can.  It is a testimony to Mr. Needham’s writing and to Inspector Tay’s brilliantly grumpy nature, that even though I hate smoking, I secretly cheer each time Sam lights up where he isn’t supposed to, or drops a butt where is is forbidden.

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And it is this instinctive bridling against authority that leads to one of the dilemmas/controversies/call it what you will/ surrounding this book.

Basically, the powers that be in Singapore were a tad under-whelmed by the portrayal of their country in Mr. Needham’s first Inspector Tay book, and so this second novel was never published there.  Here, read the author’s own words on the subject –  he explains it way better.

Mr. Needham clearly knows Singapore and Singaporeans in great depth, and is not shy about speaking his mind.  Well, Inspector Tay’s mind :

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Another great story.

Sam Tay is way up there with my favourite literary men.

And I can’t wait for the next book.

Enthusiastically recommended, and if you feel so inlined, you can order the book right now, by clicking on one of the links below:

The Ambassador’s Wife by Jake Needham

I might just have a bit of a crush on Inspector Samuel Tay, of the Singapore CID.

Not because he’s tall dark and handsome, or any of that clichéd nonsense.

On the contrary, Inspector Tay is a slightly overweight, late-middle-aged smoker, and  – if the truth be known –  probably Singapore’s home grown version of a Grumpy Old Man.  Hates mobile phones.  Hates immediate familiarity.  Bit of a Luddite, if the truth be known.  But he makes me laugh out loud as he stomps around his island state, and that is a wonderful thing, to smile and laugh as you read.

So, yes. I am already a huge Inspector Tay fan after reading the first in what I hope will be an endless series of novels.

The Inspector grumbles a lot – about not being able to smoke, about technology he doesn’t understand, about the ruthless razing of the old Singapore and the imposition of a sanitised version, about how boring this pristine little city state it…it’s just that he doesn’t grumble out loud too much, since he hardly talks to anyone.  Being a bit of a loner, you understand.  So he just grumbles to us, the complicit reader.

Sam Tay has all the makings of a brilliant hero – almost an anti-hero in fact –  since he can’t shoot to save his life, doesn’t think much of most of his colleagues, loathes most Americans, is inarticulate around women…yup, a regular grumpy old man.  And what a fabulous character he is.

The ever inventive creator of Inspector Tay, the oh-so-clever Jake Needham, has written a marvellous whodunnit, but with lots of twists.

I love the way Mr. Needham seamlessly blends fact and fiction.  His fictional detectives and diplomats and victims inhabit the real identifiable world of Singapore, and despite his jibes at the expense of the Lion City, it’s clear that Mr. Needham knows the city like the back of his hand.  Sam wanders in and out of bookshops and coffee shops and the subway and the 5 star hotels, all of which exist for real, and he lives in Emerald Hill, which is real, and as I read the book, I realised that on my next trip to Singapore I shall probably laugh out loud when I see the Marriott, the scene of a horrific crime in the opening pages of the novel :

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Obviously I then googled the Marriott (which I thought I had remembered correctly, and I had) and voila, here it is:

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And of all the curious things –  out of all the dozens of images online for the Marriott, the one I chose (above) was, without realising it, from Jake Needham’s blog – coincidence, coincidence.  Naturally, I then read the newsletter, and what fun it is too.  Since Mr. Needham explains his story way better than I can ever do, here you go, the link to a very wry piece of writing about the locales used in the book.  Good fun.

Yes, you’re right.  Back to the book.

A woman has been brutally murdered  –  very, very brutally murdered and disfigured –  and it will come as no surprise to you that Sam Tay is squeamish and hates the sight of blood.  What a man.

I am not going to spoil the plot of this great book, obviously.

It’s a fascinating whodunnit.

And even more than that, perhaps, it’s an amazing insight into whatever still remains of the heart and soul of Singapore, through the jaundiced eyes of Sam Tay, who is all set to become my favourite detective as he grumbles and cusses his way through Singapore, smoking where he’s not allowed to, deliberately dropping his cigarette butts on the ground, battling technology as well as murder, kicking against the system…

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Anyway, enough from me.

Read this book and meet the best Grumpy Old man in Asia.

You can buy the book right now by clicking on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier.

 

 

Bonsai Kitten by Lakshmi Narayan

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The first day of a new year deserves something nice and new, and so the first novel by my friend Lakshmi Narayan fits the bill totally.  Since I have known Lakshmi from our far-off Mumbai days, her début book “Bonsai Kitten” resonated on a personal level, but all readers will enjoy her Singapore story with a twist.

The twist is that the main protagonist, the gutsy Divya, is Indian, and so Singapore and its hectic, international lifestyle is seen through the eyes of an outsider.

It is not a plot spoiler to tell you that “Bonsai Kitten” charts Divya’s evolution from ignored, unloved, cheated-upon wife to a happy, independent career woman.

The author clearly has great affection for Singapore and it shows.  There is much detail about the food and the customs and the eclectic mix of foreigners who make up Divya’s happy, noisy, friendly support network, faced as she is with her husband’s cold, unloving betrayal of her.  We move through Singapore learning as we go, very much as our heroine does.  We also learn much about Divya’s south Indian heritage, something she finds both comforting and paradoxically wearying.

We all feel for Divya, and empathise with her from start to finish, and I for one never lost the faith.  I just knew, deep down, that she would prevail.  My heart warmed to her from the beginning, when we learn that she lost a much loved daughter, and those pages of the book are written with a raw emotion that is moving.

The author tells Divya’s story from 2 perspectives, a clever idea that is cleverly done, and these differing perspectives add extra dimensions to the story.  Never has the Cosmic Jester been as centre stage as in this fun read.

Published in 2012 by Jufic Books, the paperback costs Rs 195.

If you would like to start the New Year with this new book, it couldn’t be easier.
Just click on the link below :