“International crime fiction” can be an unhelpful label, given how often people use it simply to denote the crime fiction of any country other than their own, so as to indicate border crossing by readers rather than sleuths. But it is an apt one for Shamini Flint’s series featuring Inspector Singh whose investigations cut a wide swath across Southeast Asia. Inspector Singh is a detective in the Singapore police force, but it seems that his superiors are keen to take advantage of any opportunity to send him on distant, unpalatable assignments. In the first installment of the series, he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that a Singaporean woman accused of murder is fairly treated by the Malaysian police. In the second, he finds himself on secondment in Bali to assist with anti-terrorism efforts in the wake of a bomb exploding, and in the fourth he is sent to Cambodia as an observer to the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. (In the third, he stays home in Singapore, but even there it seems that there’s an international dimension given that the murder at the centre of the plot occurs at an international law firm.)
The first book in the series, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, amply illustrates the richness that such cross-cultural and individually diverse settings can afford. In it, the shared colonial histories of Singapore and Malaysia are highlighted, and current tensions between the countries⎯political, cultural, and religious⎯are mirrored in the interaction between the Singaporean Sikh Inspector Singh, and his Malaysian Moslem counterpart Inspector Mohammad, and also in the details of the case that they must cooperate to solve: the murder of a wealthy Malaysian businessman of which his estranged Singaporean wife, a former model who grew up in poverty, stands accused.
The author of the series, Shamini Flint, is a former lawyer who practiced for ten years with an international firm in Singapore and Malaysia before opting to write full time, and she makes excellent use of her legal knowledge in this book. The inner workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system are explored, as are Malaysia’s plural legal regimes, the latter providing a crucial plot point when the murdered man suddenly converted to Islam in order to have a bitter custody battle transferred to Syariah court in the hope of thwarting his wife’s seemingly imminent victory in the secular courts.
These facets effectively combine to evoke the strong sense of place that distinguishes much of the best crime fiction, and make for extremely interesting reading. The most appealing feature of the book, though, is Inspector Singh himself. One of the back cover blurbs draws a parallel between him and Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective Agency series. I can see why the publishers would stress such a comparison given the enormous popularity of that series. But the comparison is all wrong. Inspector Singh has much more in common with his police procedural brethren such as Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander (methodical, glum, portly and wheezing, at odds with his wife), John Rebus (at odds with his superiors), or even, if we can step into the realm of television for a moment, Lieutenant Columbo (rumpled and underestimated). In her characterization of Inspector Singh, Flint strikes the perfect balance: sufficient familiarity to meet genre expectations, and sufficient novelty to make it feel altogether fresh.
I have only read the first book so far and I recommend it enthusiastically. I fully expect that, on further investigation (ha ha), Inspector Singh will join my pantheon of favourite fictional sleuths. It appears that, as yet, the first is the only one in the series that has been published in Canada, but I liked it so well that I’ve already ordered the UK editions of the rest, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.