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Inspector Singh sure has zing

Last updated: 30 January, 2010
TARUN CHERIAN 16:34 IST

inspector singh investigates: a most peculiar malaysian murder Shamini Flint Hachette, 2009, pp 295, Rs 295

A classic whodunnit, with an endearing detective, an exotic setting, plots within plots, reasons for murder galore, transnational tensions, parochialism, a breathtakingly pretty suspect, and a wonderful Asian mix of characters. You have a cast full of evil doers — crooked cops, hit men, jilted lovers, corporate raiders, activists. You have a great spread of motives: sex, love, revenge, money, custody issues, control of great estates, dark secrets, rainforest rights.

The hero who... er... strides in to the rescue is... um... “Both men looked disbelieving. He was an overweight, sweaty, hairy, unconvincing example of a policeman.” This outwardly, unlikely hero however has the tenacity of a bulldog, a deep detective mind, courage and integrity. And you would definitely want him on your side if you are accused of murder, especially one that inflames national passions. You are Singaporean and your ex-husband is Malaysian.

In the dock is the stunning Chelsea Liew, married into a great Malaysian business family, and accused of murdering her ex-husband. For the Malaysian establishment, it’s an open and shut case, a trial that is a complete waste of time. Why bother when the facts are self-evident?

“Singh knew he would not be on the case if he was not the unofficial ‘most likely to be forced into early retirement entry’ in the Singapore police yearbook.” But as Singh probes beneath the surface, skeletons tumble out and Inspector Muhammad, the case officer, begins to rethink things. The collaboration between the two begins to uncover secrets and suspects, motives and cover-ups.

A Most Peculiar Murder is well-written and crafted, but it is not a thriller that breaks the mould, it’s not on the edge and it’s not different. While it doesn’t have airs of being more than what it is, the fact is that it does have depth.
Numerous meta-messages are woven into Inspector Singh Investigates. First, it takes pot-shots at the modern icon of the trim, fit, heavily-worked-out body, reminding us that what’s under the bonnet makes the real difference. The novel with unnoticeable sleight of hand returns us to good old family values, portraying the true depth in the middle-class Singh’s relationship, a wonderful contrast to the Lees — stinking rich but shallow and viperous.

Third, the novel attempts to look over the fence of knee-jerk national hatred. A little disturbing however, is the assumption that the Singaporean way of approaching a problem (read more Westernised approach) is superior to the more messy Asian/traditional Malay approach. More seriously, the book raises issues of rainforest protection, conservation and tribal rights. And suddenly you realise that, without pretension, this detective thriller has highlighted the great concerns of our times — the need to look beneath the surface, to value goodness over mere materialism, the imperative will to transcend national passions, the necessity to protect rainforests.
Flint’s novel however, is more than a neatly worked out puzzle, with politically correct messages thrown in. It’s about being human. It’s about prejudices and the willingness to look beyond, it’s about love and greed, it’s about the worst in us and also the best, about our ability to rise above, about true nobility and self-sacrifice. The mix has most peculiar zing... or should we say Singh?

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