Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Carnage And Calamity: Inspector Singh In Beijing

I'd read this novel during the Chinese New Year break. Months ago, I'd gone into the A Curious Indian Cadaver, which was published earlier, but I got this one out instead, veering dangerously close to China-bashing. Though China could, I suppose, be held responsible for some of the outrageous things it has been linked with, from disappearing booksellers to prawn-pillaging tourists, and the goings-on at the South China Sea.

Carnage and calamity: Inspector Singh in Beijing

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 29 March 2016

Shamini Flint does not like China.

That's what I could gather from Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing. This instalment in Flint's Inspector Singh series sees the character looking into the death of a young Singaporean, seemingly from a botched robbery, in the Middle Kingdom.

Through the dead youth — Justin Tan, the son of the First Secretary of the Singapore Embassy there — we are introduced to modern-day China, and the emptying of the famed hutongs of Beijing, driven by development and greed, and enabled by corruption and class disparities. It is soon clear that the victim's end is tied to the land grab.

The good inspector's circumstances haven't changed much, six books into this series and counting. Despite his successes as Singapore's globetrotting gumshoe and growing reputation, he still gets no respect at home. His wife still nags him, and his superior can't stand him. One suspects that Singh was shipped to China with the hope that it'll be a one-way trip.

In keeping with the novel's vibe, Mrs Singh raves about the expendability of anything "Made in China" and the influx of Mainlanders into the island republic.

"Up to no good until proven otherwise!" she says, echoing the sentiments of a neighbour about the gold-digging China dolls said to be infiltrating the Lion City. Which is also what some governments might feel about non-conformists.

Maybe it's not just China that Flint dislikes.

This novel isn't short of villains: corrupt businessmen, corrupt cops, heavy-handed members of the security forces, and even one of China's spoiled-rotten princelings. But the identity of the actual big bad — the country itself, one is led to believe — is always in sight.

Other victims abound as well. Dreaming of a better life, a factory girl plots a get-rich scheme with what she witnesses at a crime scene, potentially dicing with death. Professor Luo, Justin's mentor, is arrested for practising falun gong in public and incarcerated. The professor's daughter (and Justin's girlfriend) fends off the unwanted advances of the aforementioned princeling, who can't seem to tell the difference between loving and owning someone.

But all that is nothing compared to how a prisoner's organs are harvested and for whom — spine-chillingly horrid and infuriatingly unjust.

The perfect backdrop for a calamitous killing.

Though I find it odd that a Singaporean policeman can be sent off, seemingly at a moment's notice, to solve a crime involving Singaporean citizens abroad, even if certain strings were pulled.

It's been a while since I last caught up with Inspector Singh; the other one I read was about "a curious Indian cadaver." By now, I've come to accept that Flint's are a different kind of detective story, where the pieces of the puzzle come together slowly towards the end, with few clues as to the identity of the culprit. You don't get the sense that Singh is driving the story, but I suppose it works here.

Singh tends to think his way through a case (not hoping for action-hero acrobatics with his size), letting other able-bodied sidekicks and allies pick up the slack. In this case, it's a former police officer assigned to him, probably in a dual role as cultural attache to keep the portly Singh from stepping on too many toes.

One gets just enough of everything: detective work, scenery, socio-political commentary and the occasional quote and flash of wit that convinces one that this is a crime novel and not a laundry list of things in China that need fixing.

Still, I couldn't help picking up on the disdain for the unsavoury aspects of modern China sprinkled throughout the book. Maybe it's because I share some of those sentiments.

Or, in Flint's case, maybe it's a case of "we hate the things we love." One can't help but wonder whether, deep down, she is railing against the injustices depicted in her books with the nanoscopic hope that she might in some way get people thinking, and then moving, to start changing things for the better.

Just as her obese, unloved crime-solver tries to do the right thing, despite his own doubts and the odds stacked against him.

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, the newest in Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh series, will be released in April 2016.

A Calamitous Chinese Killing
Shamini Flint
Piatkus (2013)
309 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7499-5779-7


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