Two Malaysian novels

So I finally read the first book in the Inspector Singh series. And it is interestingly a little different from the second (or the first book I read, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul.

Set in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is our introduction to Inspector Singh (although as I found, the books don’t really need to be read in order). And his case focuses on a Singaporean woman who is being charged for the murder of her husband, a timber tycoon, whom she was divorcing. Of course things are never all that straightforward as we discover that her late husband had converted to Islam (they are both Chinese) and now her custody of their three children is also at stake. Her gentle, tree-loving brother-in-law complicates matters even further when he decides to confess to the crime, which he says he did for the forests and the native people whose land has been stolen from them.

While the writing is nothing to shout about, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder features an interesting case, a different setting (I’ve not read any crime novels set in Kuala Lumpur) with the always amusing Inspector Singh.

I enjoyed the Inspector Singh story more than the other Malaysian book I read this month, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw.

The central figure of this story is Johnny Lim who lives in rural Kinta Valley and runs a textile store and led the fight against the Japanese in the area during the Second World War.

The narrative is told from three perspectives. Unreliable narrators alert! The first is his son Jasper, who has researched the life of his no-good father, and he pretty much despises his cold father. This section chronicles Johnny’s life as he becomes the apprentice of a textile merchant and rises to lead the Communist movement in the area.

The second is Johnny’s wife Snow, told via diary entries focused around a sort of honeymoon boat trip that they embark on with a few friends – Wormwood, a guy named Honey who drinks a lot and the suave but slimy Kunichika – and almost lose their dear old lives.

The third part is told by Wormwood, Johnny’s best friend, and also recounts the days in which they spend drifting away together. Wormwood is an old man now, spending his time in a nursing home and dreaming up beautiful gardens and a beautiful woman (Snow).

The unfortunate thing about this book is that none of the narrators are all that likeable. And because the narratives by Snow and Wormwood are personal accounts, Johnny, who is supposed to be the central character, gets lost in their recollections.

This wasn’t the book for me.

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A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul: Inspector Singh Investigates

I used to avoid the crime/mystery shelves at the library. You could find me in fiction, non-fiction, science fiction and fantasy, magazines etc but not the crime/mystery sections. Not until recently.

Perhaps I was unsure of where to begin, which series were good, which writers actually wrote well instead of just churning out book after book in factory-style mass production.

So I’ve been playing catch up.

Partly because of the very many series that have come from countries afar. Like Iceland or Sweden. And in this case, Southeast Asia.

Flint has created an interesting, somewhat different policeman in Inspector Singh, who hails from Singapore and is too fond of his food, resulting in a rather portly figure. Authoritative and imposing, but a little on the round side.

“Singh took a deep breath. He smelt the spicy warm scent of ikan bakar, fish wrapped in banana leaf, on the hotel barbecue. His nostril hairs quivered appreciatively. Wherever he was, the smell of cooking food was always enticing. Singh grimaced – even by his own standards it seemed callous to be longing for dinner at such a time. His ample stomach immediately protested his conclusion, rumbling like a distant storm. The policeman shrugged and ordered a cold Bintang beer and a nasi goreng. After all, one had to eat. He wouldn’t be helping anyone by eschewing food. Not, he thought ruefully, that he was helping anyone anyway.”

Inspector Singh is the Singapore Police Force’s representative in Bali after the aftermath of the Sari Club bombings (based on the real 2002 bombings which killed 202 people and injured many more).

This is rather curious as he is no terrorism expert but an investigator of murders (Singapore has to keep its terrorism experts around to protect its own shores).

And conveniently, there is a murder for Singh to solve.

For the police have found the skull fragment of a man who was killed before the bomb went off.

A fun read, set against a bit of a grim background. It isn’t quite hard to see where the story is going despite the myriad of characters that Flint tosses in (perhaps one too many?). But Inspector Singh, “a throwback to the old school – hardworking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking”, not to mention food-loving, makes for an amusing character whose cases take him to unusual and refreshing locations – in terms of crime series at least – as the series is set mostly in Southeast Asia.

You know, I just realised that I have read this series out of order. Silly me. Still it works fine on its own, and it didn’t feel like I was reading the second book in a series (which is probably why I only realised it now) and now I’m curious to see how the first book, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, will work having read the second one!

I am guessing that I wouldn’t fare too well as a police inspector….