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.

 

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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.

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THREE SECONDS by ROSLUND & HELLSTROM

Clichés like “a page turner” and “unputdownable” are unavoidable in a review of this extraordinary, gripping, dark novel which is – yes, here goes –  a page turner and is absolutely unputdownable.

This hefty novel (beautifully translated from the original Swedish) grips you from the very first page, and keeps you on tenterhooks until the final seconds of the book.  And as for the moment when you finally understand the significance of the Three Seconds of the title, well…

As ever with a crime thriller, it’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoiling everything, but this complex story centres upon a man called Piet Hoffmann, a man who hides his dark side and his even darker life from the young family whom he adores with a passion.

The dichotomy between a man prepared to commit crimes and a father whose love for his little boys almost moves the reader to tears is beautifully and fiercely written.

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I really cannot in all honesty tell you any more about what Piet does, or the book will be spoiled for you, but the inter-mingling of his tough, dangerous, secret, often sordid professional life with his total adoration of his wife and children is a strong leitmotiv throughout this gripping book.

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Because his work is so dangerous, Piet dreams constantly of his cocooning family life.

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I have never been to Sweden, so the names and places were totally unfamiliar, but so strong is the sparse, elegant writing that as I read, I could visualise the streets of the small town with the plain church tower, the dusty offices, the empty roads in the pre-dawn.  You can taste that stewed office coffee, and visualise the cling-wrapped tasteless sandwiches and stale pastries that are found for sale in 24 hour petrol stations.

There is a brilliantly strong cast of characters, both good and evil, with many of the former wrestling with their consciences as they try to tackle crime.

Men like Inspector Ewert Grens, bad tempered, heart-broken, prickly, avoided by most of his colleagues :

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He leads a lonely, solitary life, burying himself in police work to avoid his empty home and his nightmarish memories :

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This is a superb book, way better than this review would indicate, but I can’t bear the idea of inadvertently spoiling any of the tension for you.  And be prepared for nervous tension, some sickening brutality at times, and the feeling of nudging your way through the many layers of this book, just as the good detective Ewert Grens has to do.

Personally and enthusiastically recommended.

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The Hundred-year-Old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

What a charming, feel-good read this novel is. It is humorous and quirky and – without in the least spoiling the plot – it has a happy ending.

Delightful, in a word.

Allan Karlsson is 100 years old, and well and truly fed up of the old people’s home where he lives, and he is especially fed up of the tyrannical Director Alice. So, with just a few minutes to go before his 100th birthday party, he climbs out of the window and, yes, he disappears.

He disappears into a world of picaresque adventures and tantalising almost-historic-moments.

As we accompany the delightfully unflappable and unshockable Allan on his adventures, which all start when he swipes a suitcase entrusted to him by a loutish thug at the bus station who needs to go to the loo…yes, quite…as I said, as we accompany Allan on his new post-100th birthday life, we also go back into his history, one amazing adventure at a time.

There is an oddball cast of contemporary friends who gradually join him in his great escape, and as for the historical characters we meet through him…Chairman Mao, Mrs Chiang Kai Shek, Stalin, Churchill, Truman, De Gaulle, Franco, Nixon – you name them, they were all, apparently, baffled, confuddled and bemused (one suspects) at some point by the quirky, totally politically disinterested Allan.

All Allan wants is a quiet life with lots of vodka and absolutely no political talk whatsoever, and so he manages to have non-political yet far-reaching discussions with the leading figures of the 20th century, and since many of these conversations are indeed vodka-laced, the fallout from his conversations are often hilarious, and, yes, let’s admit it, totally believable.

Unwittingly, Mr. Karlsson has spent decades influencing world history.

Surely I am not the only person to have Googled to check whether General Franco was indeed nearly blown up near a bridge, or whether Vladivostok burned down?

Einstein didn’t have a brother, either, but oh, how I wish he had.  And as for his dotty wife, Amanda.  What a rock star she is.

The humour in this book is low key, but builds up increasingly as you read on, and it is a style of humour that is gentle and forgiving – although interspersed with moments of pure ghoulishness.

In an almost lackadaisical way Allan and his mates manage to kill quite a few unsavoury characters off, as they galumph through the Swedish countryside, but such is Allan’s laid-back 100-year-old charm that you, too, mentally shrug your shoulders at another death, reasoning that he was a baddie anyway, so what the heck?

There is one absolutely delicious part in the book when the police finally catch up with the murderous Allan and his jolly band of men + woman + elephant + dog. (Yes. Really. An elephant in Sweden)

Explanations are required of these suspected thieves and murderers, and the centenarian and his gang do a brilliant job.  As they painstakingly retell their version of their escapades, they neatly tie up all the unexplained, and downright unexplainable, loose ends.  As I read this part of the book, I kept thinking that it was cleverly written like the all-too-pat explanations that often neatly tie up loose ends at the end of less skilled stories.  This time, though, it is fabulous, as the merry band of men (and the foul-mouthed, red-headed Beauty) rewrite history to suit the version they want the cops to believe.  Allan, who is the sprightliest, most un-muddle-headed centenarian you could wish to meet, deliberately becomes muddle-headed, lacing his version of events with confusing reminiscences about Churchill and Stalin and Franco.  Great fun.

My favourite moment?

Oh, Allan standing outside the theatre in freezing Moscow, as the movers and shakers of the establishment and the KGB stream out after a show.  Allan holds up a hand written sign with the name of the man he wishes to meet, and every Russian spy and cop worth his salt dismisses this as the work of a crank.  No normal person would do such an obvious thing, now, would they ?

A fun read.

Published in English in 2012 by Hesperus Press, the paperback costs £8.99

If, after reading this review, you wish to read the book – and it is an absolutely great read – nothing could be simpler.

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The Associate by JOHN GRISHAM

It’s been a few years since I read a John Grisham novel. Not by design, I hasten to add, but more by accident/many more book clubs books to read than I can decently keep up with (ooh, ugly, unwieldy sentence, that,  & ending with a preposition to boot…)
Anyway, away in the cool hills of Kashmir on holiday, I ran out of books, and there, on my host’s bookshelf, was a Grisham novel.
Perfect.
“The Associate” is every bit as gripping and fast-paced and intricately clever as its predecessors.

Hats off to Mr. Grisham for being able to craft so many gripping books out of the world of law. This book is well-written, a page turner (however cliched that might sound) and I was hooked until the very last page. A perfect legal whodunnit.
I can’t tell you much about the plot, as that would spoil everything, but suffice it to say that this story takes place in Manhattan, as opposed to the southern US as in many of his books. The murky world of big law firms and mega law suites is compellingly told. The numbing, grinding work ethos and pressure of the big corporate world is told in harrowing detail and the city of New York features in a starring role.
Amidst a cast of characters good bad and downright ugly, we have in Kyle McAvoy an eminently likeable hero. Slightly flawed, brainy, honest – we are gunning for him the whole way through this great read.

Classic John Grisham, and so thoroughly recommended.
Published in 2009 by Doubleday, the hardback (what a treat !) costs US$27.95

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Couldn’t be easier.

 

 

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by GEOFF DYER

Reading this funny, clever book about Venice and Varanasi, the two ultimate water-based dramatic, atmospheric, crumbling cities, whilst sitting in Varanasi made the whole experience that much more fun.  If not a little bizarre.

Well, to be honest, I read the Venice section in Varanasi, and the Varanasi section once I was back home in Delhi, and by then able to say “Ah yes, the Ganges View Hotel” and ” Of course, Assi Ghat,” having just visited them.

Adding to the deliciousness of it all, having literally just read the incident in the Venice section about real life African sellers of knock-off Prada handbags actually being part of an art installation, we arrived at Assi ghat on our first morning to find a Bollywood shoot in full flow.

So the question remains – were the completely OTT, utterly fabulous, wildly photogenic saddhus and holy men for real, or were they from casting central ?  Whatever the outcome, it was a suitable metaphor for this hilarious, entertaining book.

“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” is clever, screamingly funny in parts, with the Venice part definitely funnier than the Varanasi part.

There are two definite stories, one taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town, and the other taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town.

But are the two stories connected ?  Ah, that is for you, dear reader, to determine.

The Venice story is certainly funnier and more obviously dazzling, writing-wise. I laughed out loud several times reading the Venice part in Varanasi (oh dear, is this getting too interwoven ?)

In the Venice story we meet Jeff, a middle aged jaded, freelance writer going on what is basically a junket to the Biennale in Venice. There, he meets the gorgeous Laura who is young and beautiful and irreverent and mysterious, and they embark on a 3 day fling. Copious amounts of booze, lines of coke and mammoth –  nay epic – sex sessions are the order of the day, and then she leaves Venice, and the novella ends with Jeff alone and downcast.

Cut to the Varanasi section.

Here we see the town through the eyes of an un-named middle-aged, world weary, freelance journalist. Who may or may not be Jeff. We are never told.  But there are enough clever links and references to nudge you into thinking it may well be.

But if you don’t feel that it is Jeff, it doesn’t alter the story in the slightest.

Our narrator goes to Varanasi to write a story for a British newspaper, and just stays on.  He doesn’t make a conscious decision to stay on, just sort of drifts into it, and drifts through his life there, and towards what is possibly his death.

To my delight, when reading this second half of the book, having just watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats, we see that our narrator….yes, you’ve guessed….he also watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats.

So many delicious worlds within worlds.

There are lots of clever little references linking the two halves of the book, be it a dream or bananas (you’ll see why) or a lovely woman whose name begins with L.

As a fellow Brit, I loved Mr.Dyer’s acerbic observations on our country and countrymen.

Here he is describing a sour-tempered Indian shopkeeper in London :

 

 

Or Jeff”s hilarious reaction to his own somewhat unexpected use of the clipped word “Quite” :

 

 

His power of language is so sublime that a waiter, whom we meet for one fleeting second and never again, has an over-powering personality :

 

And as for this description of Venice –  well, after all that possible film within a film feeling in Varansi, with possible saddhus posing for the Bollywood cameras, this seemed to sum up perfectly the deliciously clever mood of this fun, entertaining, clever but ultimately sad book :

 

 

Published by Random House India, the Indian hardback costs Rs 395.  (I have no idea how much the Venice edition sells for…)

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DREAMING IN HINDI by Katherine Russell Rich

An Oprah-validated book, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating account of a middle-aged American’s woman’s foray not only into India and learning Hindi, but into living in small-town India, and in a joint family to boot.

Part auto-biography, part academic treatise on linguistics and neurology, full of humour and self-mockery, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating read.  The sort of book that makes this reviewer say, ruefully, “Now, why didn’t I think of that ?”

From New York, where she has survived cancer and being fired from her job, the author travels to India on a free-lance assignment.  Fascinated by the country, she decides to move to India for a year, to immerse herself in the Hindi that she had started to learn back in the USA.

Thus Katherine Rusell Rich –  a clever, intellectual but slightly world-weary New Yorker –  ends up in Udaipur, a pretty (but small)  town in the desert sate of Rajasthan.  On one level, her adventures with language and life, with India and her eccentric fellow language students pretty much follow the path of any classic memoir of living in India.  A good entertaining read, with huge dollops of indiscretion.  This reviewer, for one, would love to know more about Helaena and her Maharaja.

The writer is eager to learn and to adapt to India, and her portrayal of her new home is full of aching love and misgiving, of frustration and hilarity, and above all of deep affection for this new world she is exploring simultaneously on several levels.

What distinguishes this book from any common-or-garden romp through India, is the academic analysis that accompanies her hilarious sorties and inevitable linguistic gaffes.  The author consults neurobiologists, experts in linguistics, and researches the meaning and impact of second language learning, skilfully weaving it all into her narrative.

As we follow her progress through India and into the complexities of the Hindi language, we also learn the whys and hows of thinking in another language.

Make no mistake, this is not a light, fluffy read.  Parts of it are hilarious.  Some parts are slightly coy.  Much of it is intellectual.  It all adds up to a thought-provoking read.

Dreaming in Hindi is published by Tranquebar and sells in India for Rs 395.

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