My favorite Inspector Singh yet. If you haven’t yet heard about the Inspector Singh detective series, I recommend giving it a try. Singh is a detective with the Singapore Police with a knack for solving murders and an equal gift for irritating his superiors, often resulting in dubious foreign ‘honor’ missions. In this case, he’s been sent as a Singapore representative for a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia led by the United Nations. He’s never been to Cambodia and finds the gastronomic experience sadly lacking. When a witness is killed halfway through testimony, he finds himself working with the local police to solve the murder.
Although the cover blurb has the gall to compare it to McCall Smith’s series starring Precious Ramotswe, the two series are really quite different in philosophy. For one thing, Flint isn’t afraid to raise the emotional impact through body count. More significantly, Flint plunges right into complicated situations, particularly in this book structured around modern day after effects of the Khmer Rouge, where McCall Smith’s series tends to minimize or ignore political conflict and history.
“Chhean stood in line outside the court room, her tapping foot the only overt sign of her impatience, waiting to be ushered in by the various functionaries. The tribunal guards were dressed in light-blue shirts and heavy gold braid. She supposed this fondness for colourful costumes was a subconscious effort to forget the days when authority had worn black collarless pyjamas and red chequered kramas. If only it were so easy to dress up or disguise the past.”
The story opens with a flashback: a young girl watches her father taken in the middle of the night by men of the Khmer Rouge, and what happens when she surreptitiously follows them. Narrative then shifts to focus primarily on Singh, but also brief interludes of an assortment of others, including Colonel Menday, one of the few honest members of the Cambodian police; Gaudin, an elderly, tormented Frenchman; and Chhean, an adult orphan. While appearances may be brief, we get enough complexity of each to appreciate their struggles. The hero, Singh is quite human–an imperfect, frequently slovenly one–with a belief in justice who is often moved to compassion despite his cynicism. In short, identifiable. His sidekick, Chhean, is a dogged Cambodian journalist who is often assigned ‘odd jobs’ and spends her spare time researching old records for hints of her missing family. Intelligent, determined, focused; she was a perfect foil for Singh.
Storytelling was fascinating as it went from murder mystery, to the search for missing loved ones, and in the background deaths of former Khmer Rouge trying to live out their lives in anonymity. The setting contained the wonderful variety in most countries, from tourism-centered villages to officious administrative offices to rural landscape. I appreciated the diversity of places and people that covered, given that it’s a relatively quick detective novel.
I make no secret of the fact that I generally like my reading escapist; with a heart wounded regularly in real life by the deaths of lovely people and compassion stretched by attempting to help people that can’t help themselves, I strongly prefer happy endings and likeable characters. I was somewhat apprehensive starting this one; I knew of the Cambodian killing fields only generally, and was concerned the book might overwhelm. It turned out to be wonderfully balanced for me, mystery and sub-mystery woven through with an education in a country I know almost nothing about, and an exploration of the legacy of citizenship in such a country.