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:

“No sir. It’s slow going with my phone. If you had Wi-Fi maybe…

Yes, I get it, Sergeant. I am an old fart who doesn’t even have Wi-Fi in his house and that’s slowing you down. Give it a rest.”

And this:

“Tay’s choice of duty gun marked him as even more of an old fart and everyone already thought he was, which was really saying something.”

Not mad about the Americans:

“May I ask now why you’re here, Mrs…

Call me Emma, please, inspector.

The practice of flinging around first names at the even slightest acquaintance was one of a long list of American characteristics Tay thought truly annoying. What possible purpose did such a phoney familiarity service?”

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

“It pained him that the public nannies that gloried in telling everyone how to live had stripped the simple act of smoking of all dignity. The more difficult the smug, narrow-minded bureaucrats made it for Tay to smoke, the more determined he became to continue doing it.”

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

“Samuel Tay stood in his tiny garden and squinted at the sky. The sun was a flickering smudge and the caramel-colored air smelled of earth and rot. Singapore, the diminutive island state known for its blue skies, dazzling sunlight, and green environment, was drowning in crap.”

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 even 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:

“Smoking was purely a habit for most people, but it wasn’t for Tay. Ritualistic meaning pervaded every step of the process. He saw each cigarette he smoked as a few moments of personal meditation on the perfidiousness of the world.

He supposed the plain fact was he liked smoking. He liked unwrapping the pack, feeling the cellophane between his fingers, and listening to the crinkle as he rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. He loved the sudden whiff of tobacco he got when he slipped the package with his thumbnail and tore back the top.”

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:

“Before now, Tay had no idea Singapore even had a pollutants index, but for weeks now it had been the only thing anyone talked about. Every television channel was broadcasting warnings that breathing the air was hazardous to health. Were they telling him not to breathe at all, Tay wondered, or merely urging him not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary? Unless it was one of the other, he didn’t see what good the information did him.”

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.

This 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.

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