“Inspector Singh could hear the heavy groans of frogs and the harsh chirping of crickets. The sounds of Bali were so different from the din of construction sites and car engines that he was used to in Singapore. The policeman scratched his salt-and-pepper beard thoughtfully. The night-time cacophony did have a certain familiarity. He realised that the racket reminded him of his wife’s cross tones on those regular occasions when he arrived late for a family dinner or had a few beers too many at the Chinese coffee shop around the corner from his home.”
In many ways, Inspector Singh is the mirror opposite of Hercule Poirot. Though equally rotund, Singh huffs and puffs his way up the stairs, while Monsieur prefers to use the ‘little grey cells’ as he reclines. Inspector has his impeccably wound turban while Poirot has his carefully styled mustache. Singh proudly wears his white tennis shoes because they are so much more comfortable while Hercule suffers in his shining patent leather shoes. There are small differences: Poirot remains happily single while Singh chafes under the critical eye of his wife, though his stomach benefits from her cooking. Papa Poirot often invites sympathetic confidences while the Inspector aggrevates suspects into reply. Most importantly, Singh is usually at odds with the Singapore police department. Yet they both have a reputation for getting their murderer.
In the second book of the series, Singh is loaned out to the Bali police in a gesture of assisting with the aftermath of a nightclub bombing. When the Bali police discover Singh is no terrorism expert, they assign him a homicide–a single murder victim discovered among the mass carnage of the club. Doing so means learning about Bali from an assigned enthusiastic and optimistic Australian partner Bronwyn.
Flint’s view of her detective, and indeed her characters, is a touch more realistic than Christie–perhaps even detrimentally so because it becomes harder to see through the annoying frailties to the person underneath. But perhaps that is Flint’s skill, to show us that people are unhappy in so many ways and that when they open to self-realization, well, watch out. I did notice, however, that Flint seems to reach for the low-hanging ‘character flaws’ such as fatness, aging, or drinking. I prefer something a little more subtle, a little less mean, and a little more accountable as an actual trait.
Narrative jumps around from members of three expatriate couples, to Singh, to the Australian Bronwyn, to a young rural woman Nuri, whose husband brought her to Bali to start a Moslem school. Plot is enjoyable, but takes a while to accelerate to a strong finish. I think that Flint may consciously be echoing the Christie style, juxtaposing details of the local life with the interpersonal dynamics of the suspect pool. It generally works well, although I found myself somewhat regretful that it was set around a nightclub bombing, a type of incident that happens far too often in recent times. Still, Flint indirectly provided me with some education on why those sort of situation become flashpoints, and why Bali in particular seems to be a site of discontent.
The Singh series manages to be entertaining while providing gentle education into areas of southeast Asia. This one was particularly notable for how fast The Mom finished the book–a sure sign of interest (and perhaps of poor weather). Not to worry: we have the next Singh, A Singapore School of Villany, waiting in the wings.