AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :

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Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.

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The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:

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The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

Autobiography of a Mad Nation by Sriram Karri

What an interesting book this is.

A criminal and political whodunnit that takes place in contemporary India, and at the very highest levels – we meet the President of India in the opening moments of the book, and yet leaves us puzzling over the nature of the crime, the motives for it and indeed who really carried it out, right up until the final pages of the book.

The novel opens with great panache and style, as the President shows his trusted confidant and the former head of the Intelligence Service, Dr. Vidyasagar, a plea for clemency he has received.  A mentally unstable young man, Iqbal, has been beheaded in Hyderabad and the author of the letter, Vikrant, is the convicted killer, who actually called the police to confess.  Now on death row, he writes to the President asking not for clemency but for justice.  He says he has proof as to who really killed Iqbal.  And he sends the proof to the President, whom he refers to as the People’s President.

This is perhaps the moment to say that one of the things I enjoyed about this book was trying to guess who was who, for the very nice, compassionate People’s President is never named per se, but there are enough clues for me to venture a suggestion – the still very popular former President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.  Even if I’m wrong, while reading reading this novel, I imagined our fictional President to have the same genial face and kind, gentle nature of President Kalam.

I was sent this book for review by the publisher, Fingerprint!, but the problem with reviewing a whodunnit is that you really cannot reveal too much of the plot, for glaringly obvious reasons.

Suffice it to say that the first section of the book is seriously gripping, as Vidyasagar, racing against time (for the clock is ticking down both to the end of the President’s term of office and Vikrant’s execution) has to figure out whether or not Vikrant is a killer and if not, who was Iqbal’s murderer and why on earth would Vikrant have confessed to such a crime?

I am not going to spoil the plot for you, worry not.

The second part of the book consists of a long and very detailed flashback, and as you read it, you slowly begin to put together some of the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle of a book.

But not all of them, which means you start the third and final section sort-of-beginning-to-understand some things, and not understanding others at all.

Which is why this is a good read right until the very last paragraph.

Recommended.  Loved the first part, which is gripping and mystifying at the same time.

To buy the book right now, all you have to do is click on one of the links below.

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.

 

If you would like to buy the book, you can do so now, by clicking on the link below:

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 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:

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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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

If this review has encouraged you to read the book for yourself (and I hope it has) you can buy it here and now:

SALVATION OF A SAINT by KEIGO HIGASHINO

A couple of years ago I read and reviewed the first novel by Keigo Higashino, “The Devotion of Suspect X” which I loved.  Actually let me clarify that statement –  this was the author’s first novel translated into English.

Comparisons are odious, I think the saying goes, but it must be said that the author’s second translated novel “Salvation of a saint,” whilst clever and full of twists and turns right until the last chapter, is not as gripping as the earlier book.

That said, this is still a great read, a whodunnit that keeps you guessing right to the end.

A man, Yoshitaka Mashiba, is found dead, a day or so after he had announced his intention of leaving his wife.

His wife Ayane would seem to be the logical suspec

But she was hundreds of miles away when the murder took place.

And from that initial conundrum, we follow the investigations of Detective Kusanagi and his assistant the young female detective Kaoru Utsumi, as they try to work out what would (almost) seem to be the perfect crime.  Kusanagi refuses to believe that the beautiful widow could be implicated in anyway, and this tends to cloud his otherwise fine judgment. Utsumi relies a lot on her female intution –  and she is usually spot on, it must be said – and as a result the 2 colleagues often disagree about their investigation.

They both consult Professor Yukawa, a brainy laid-back university professor and a friend of Kusanagi since their student days.  Over many, many cups of coffee –  progressing from downright awful to acceptable as the novel unfolds – the Professor guides them and helps them, approaching the puzzle of who murdered Yoshitaka Mashiba from a purely academic, theoretical standpoint.  He treats the mystery almost as a mathematical formula, unlike the 2 detectives who are clues-driven.

Fascinating.

What I missed in this novel, as compared to the first, was the palpable presence of Tokyo.  Although the city is obviously there and present in the book, it isn’t as much of an elemental, intrinsic part of the story as in “The Devotion of Suspect X.” But what is omnipresent is the (naturally) very Japanese-ness of the police and the civilians they suspect of murder. There is a calmness and a sense of restraint that you would never find in – say – an American crime thriller. No shouting, no swearing, no rushing around. Everything is measured and balanced. Policemen apologise to their suspects for possibly upsetting them. Suspects hardly show any irritation at being questioned over and over again.

Recommended for cleverness and for the atmospheric, cool, sparse writing.

Published in 2008, the English translation was published in 2012.

To order the book now, just click on the either of 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: