Inspector Singh Investigates: A most peculiar Malaysian murder
By Shamini Flint
Piatkus, PB original, £6.99, May 2009.
Inspector Singh is neither young nor slim. Based in Singapore, he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to look into the case of Chelsea Liew, who is on trial for murdering her husband, Alan Lee. Chelsea is from Singapore, so Inspector Singh is charged with representing her interests in a hostile Malaysian legal system.
At first, Singh is not sympathetic to the ex-model who has lived a life of luxury and indolence while married to the rich Lee. It isn’t long, however, before he is impressed with her evident sincerity despite her “ridiculous” first name, “par for the course with the adoption of Western names by Singaporeans aiming to give themselves a cosmopolitan air…..like Mayfair and Rothmans.”
The man in charge of the case is Inspector Mohammed, who keeps well clear of Singh for the first part of the book, instead providing a sergeant, Shukor, to assist. Soon, Singh and Shukor are convinced of Chelsea’s innocence and although they don’t entirely believe the fortuitous confession to the murder by one of Alan’s brothers, Singh is pleased at the opportunity to release an innocent (he thinks) woman so she can be reunited with her three sons.
Singh and Shukor continue to discover new aspects to the case. The murdered man was head of a logging operation that might have been involved in illegal operations in the protected rainforest. Chelsea may have been having an affair with a wannabe playboy and hence may have had good reason for wanting her husband out of the way. Alan was no saint: not only did he beat his wife but he also had a string of affairs, his most recent conquest being a Moslem, causing Alan to convert in his effort to convince the girl of his genuine intentions of (eventual) marriage. Chelsea is therefore struggling not only to convince the police of her innocence but also with the Syariah court, who if Alan’s conversion was genuine, would have legal jurisdiction over Chelsea’s children and take them into care. Chelsea becomes so focused on this fight that she forgets to pay a private detective who she’s hired (before Alan’s death) to obtain evidence of his infidelity. The detective’s findings are explosive, turning Chelsea’s already upside-down world into chaos and tragedy.
Shamini Flint rings these changes with panache, alternating between themes and suspects so that the reader is never short of clues and red herrings. At the same time, she paints a sweet portrait of Inspector Singh, torn between his duty to his tedious Singaporean colleagues back home and his drive to get to the bottom of the confusing tangle of events in Kuala Lumpur.
The strongest parts of this book, however, concern Chelsea. Initially unsympathetic, we follow her attempts to reconnect with her eldest son in the wake of his father’s death, her realisation of what is important despite all her trappings of fashionable wealth, and see her change from being a spoilt trophy wife into a responsible, even brave, adult.
The plot continues to be brisk, though the solution to the murder mystery is no real surprise once the reader is provided with a motive and a chief suspect, about three-quarters of the way through the book. Nevertheless, this is a story with a conscience, and the topical subjects of biofuels, logging and the fate of indigenous populations who get in the way is told with assurance.
This book will certainly pass a very pleasant couple of hours. The as-yet incomplete character of Inspector Singh will no doubt develop over the planned series, the next episode of which will take place in Bali. I thoroughly enjoyed this light but serious novel, and think that those who enjoy Colin Cotterill and Alexander McCall Smith will find a welcome companion in Shamini Flint.
Thanks to Priya at Little Brown for my copy of this book.
Inspector Singh Investigates at the publisher's website.