Sunday, 15 November 2009

Singh To Me, Inspector

I did have high expectations for this book, because of the name "Shamini Flint". When they were not met, I sort of used the book for the book reviewer's version of target practice. From what I can see, they tamed the final version.

I also jumped the gun quite a bit. Days after this was submitted, I met and heard the author speak in person. What I gleaned would've made the review kinder, more informed. The paper waited two... three months before finally publishing it, so yeah... . I'd given way too little credit to the author, but I stand by what I felt about the book.

Looking at the original copy now, I think I've been trying too hard to recapture my old, snarky day days. In the end the peal of wisdom in the words of a concert manager rang the loudest: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything."

Too nice a guy?

first published in The Star, 15 November 2009

I must have been among hundreds of people who were piqued by the message on social networking site Facebook calling all Australians to save some Inspector Singh allegedly trapped on shelves by shelling out A$22.95 (RM73.44) "in ransom money".

Not being Australian I didn’t think too much of it. But it did put the name "Shamini Flint" into my brain, so when I came across the name on a book in Malaysia, I picked it up, no doubt "rescuing" it, too....

In Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, the titular inspector, a veteran of the Singapore police force is sent northwards to aid former Singaporean model Chelsea Liew who is accused of murdering her rich but abusive husband while in the midst of a child custody battle.

Try as Flint might to make the hero more "local", the whiff of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is still strong. Singh (who has no first name), however, is bigger and nicer than Poirot, and has more facial hair. He’s also a bit old and out of shape, and often outclassed by the supporting Malaysian characters, who seem to come across better-dressed, better-looking, healthier, and in some instances, more professional; Singh tends to take the law into his own hands – in his own nice guy way, that is.

The buzz about the book and the witty Facebook message did inflate my expectations a bit, so I was a bit let down by the first instalment of the Inspector Singh series. High hopes of reading a knuckle-chewing murder mystery were dashed as I flipped through the pages of a rather short police drama. And I’ve seen more – and better – action, twists and turns at the Sepang racing circuit.

There’s so much drama here, I thought I was reading Malaysia Today. Illegal logging and the Penans, complete with a Bruno Manser clone; civil and Syariah legal tussles on conversion; crooked cops, the haze and mistreatment of migrant labour....

Recognisable Malaysian stereotypes include the well-connected nature-thrashing tycoon (said late husband), the attention-seeking lawyer, and one of the many Malaysian judges "whose instincts were conservative and (whose) ... sympathies (were) rarely with the accused in criminal trials".

While it’s nice to get into the characters’ heads and dwellings, it kind of threw me off the chase. There are too many adjectives ("herbivorous" teeth?), a bit too much product placement (Mont Blanc seems to be a favourite), and virtually none of the wit exemplified by the Facebook ransom note.

As a sparring partner for the Royal Malaysian Police, I was left with the impression that Singh just can’t cut it. Because. He’s. Such. A. Nice. Guy. Maybe "Inspektor Pramodya of the Indonesian National Police" would’ve been a better candidate.

Singh’s next stop is Bali, and it sounds like that outing will involve bombs, terrorist cells and cross-border conspiracies, but hopefully no jokes along the lines of "Selamat Datang ke Malaysia". The portly Punjabi inspector may have taken a little tumble in his debut but he isn’t down for the count yet. Or will the nice guy finish last? I can’t wait to find out.

A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
Shamini Flint
Piatkus Books
295 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7499-2975-6