I get the strangest feeling of Agatha Christie, lah? Not entirely sure why that would be as Inspector Singh is an Indian Singaporean, disrespected by the bureaucracy that employs him, somewhat sweaty, easily lost; really nothing at all like the impeccable Hercule Poirot. Yet I found myself rather charmed by this quick little whodunnit. A famous Singapore model was in the midst of divorcing her wealthy playboy Malaysian husband, the lurid details providing fodder for the tabloids. When he is found murdered outside his home, everyone is sure she did it in response to his latest ploy to win custody: declaring himself a Moslem. The newspapers in both countries are fanning nationalist flames; the government of Singapore wants to appear to be protecting their citizens, while Malaysia wants to be seen as cooperative and confident–thus the cooperation of Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police Department with Malaysian counterparts Inspector Mohammad and Sargent Shukor. The incarcerated wife of Alan Lee, Chelsea Liew, refuses to say anything in her defense. Singh has finally gotten her talking when the dead man’s brother walks in to the police station and confesses. Too bad Chelsea is sure he is innocent, and asks Singh to continue to seek the murderer.
It’s an intriguing mix of characters and truly, every one introduced had reason to murder the victim. I really had no idea who the murderer was, and eagerly followed Singh and Shukor around Kaula Lumpur as they sought evidence of who killed Alan Lee and why. And what lovely indirect tour guides they prove to be, as the reader is treated to an overview to Malaysian culture and the contrasts with Singapore. In a moment of book serendipity, I had run into a Malaysian woman before starting this book and she mentioned how the British has brought in Chinese to work mines, and Indians to serve as house servants and bureaucrats during colonial days, and it was fascinating to have see how that little bit of historical knowledge continued to play out in modern times. Then there’s the Malay themselves, a diverse group of people with many different tongues and traditions, and we see small pieces of cultures as both suspects and inspectors wander through the country.
It is a Christie manor-house mystery, with a small cast of characters connected by blood or love and a small team of police searching for answers as they try to understand the micro-culture of the victim. The narrative hops around a bit between the different players–all of them, if I remember correctly–giving us tantalizing insight without actual guilt. If the book has any failing, it is that it is a little challenging to emotionally connect with any of the characters. Chelsea is quite withdrawn at first, although she sheds her despondence to become a fierce mother, while Inspector Singh is somewhat laughable. Brother to the dead Alan, Kian Min is a greedy, egocentric soul, while the other brother, Jester, is largely enigmatic and ineffectual. Then there’s the city, chaotic, crowded and build on graft. And the poor rainforest jungles of Borneo, harvested at an incredible rate and often illegally. There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. I highly recommend it. I’ll be looking for the next in the series.