A new Sam Tay novel is always an occasion to be celebrated, but regrettably I still haven’t learned the art of slowly reading and savouring these smashing books, racing through them excitedly instead.

(Note to Mr. Needham – er, can you please, pretty please get cracking on Sam’s next adventure?)

This book is a cracking read, and has the coolest, most stylish plot twists. About which I will say nothing, obviously, so as not to plot spoil.

In an earlier review, I said that I preferred Sam’s Singapore-based adventures over those based in other parts of Asia, but this book proves me wrong. In “Who the hell is Harry Black?” we join Sam as he tries to get to the bottom of the death of an eighty-six year old man in a small town in Thailand.

Harry Black, “whose name was not Harry Black”, is not only a man with various identities, he is also a man with secrets:

”He had thought for a long time about the best way to tell the world what he knew, and he had decided that publishing a book was the only way to go about it.”

The book detailing his secrets, he decided, was to be published only after his death and Harry has zero-ed in on a British true crime writer called Tilly Talbot to be the author. After their preliminary meeting in Bangkok, Tilly is scheduled to arrive in Hua Hin to meet Harry that very day.

And this where I shall leave you with the scene-setting, so that you can enjoy reading this oh-so-clever book for yourself.

And Sam Tay?

Sam has, you remember, retired from the Singapore police service, but is still a bit of a curmudgeon.

Read Grumpy Old Man.

We meet him in the little garden of his pretty town-house on Singapore’s Emerald Hill, morning coffee in hand but no cigarette for once. A health scare has put paid to his smoking days, a habit that was totally out of step with Singapore’s draconian anti-smoking lifestyle.

”…maybe all the warnings he had read about the effects of giving up smoking had simply been wrong. He had also read that he was likely to experience anger, frustration, and irritability, but that hadn’t happened either.

Or maybe it had. Anger, frustration, and irritability were already fundamental elements of his life. Not having his Marlboro Reds didn’t seem to make them any worse.”

Sam grumbles his way through the delivery of a packet, his latest gripe being his eyesight. And also the pretentious type face of the note inside the packet:

“The typeface was one of those annoying ones…worse, the printing was very small and Tay had to squint to read it. Did he need glasses? Surely not.

Maybe decreased vision was another symptom you suffered when you stopped smoking. There had to be a connection, didn’t there? He hadn’t had any difficulty reading small print a year ago, and now he was having great difficulty. That must be related to the lack of nicotine in his system. Had to be. He might be getting old, built he wasn’t getting old that fast.”

Isn’t he delightfully (& relatable-y) grumpy?

Sam is asked to try and figure out why Harry Black was killed, and heads to Thailand – which is, incidentally, where I was when I read the book, which is always nice – being in the same place you are reading about.

As Sam sleuths his way around Hua Hin (which I now want to visit, having read this book) there are delightful moments, one of my favourites being when he asks if there is a fax machine he can use:

”People didn’t use fax machines anymore? How could that be? Didn’t they still need to send documents to each other sometimes?”

From Hua Hin to the shabby shops in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, Sam slowly and cautiously tries to unravel the mystery of Harry Black’s life and death, with clever plot twists right until the final pages.

At one point I stupidly thought I had things sort of figured out, but Mr. Needham is way too clever for that, and I was completely wrong.

A great page-turning read.

A very stylish end.

Totally recommended.

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