Inspector Singh is home - and how he wishes he wasn-t. His wife nags him at breakfast and his superiors are whiling away their time by giving him his usual 'you're a disgrace to the Force' lecture. Fortunately for Singh, there is no rest for the wicked when he is called out to the murder of a senior partner at an international law firm, clubbed to death at his desk.
For those reading the Inspector Singh Investigates series in order, THE SINGAPORE SCHOOL OF VILLAINY is the third book. Given these are a series, is it necessary to read them in order? Whilst there's always something gained when reading books in the order that the author wrote them, this is a case where I'm not sure you need to be too obsessive about it. Of course, from the start you'll get to know the good Inspector a little more, but to be honest, there's not a lot of expansion of character going on here. It's obvious that Singh's constantly in trouble with his superiors, that he's a lone operator (think less lone wolf and more determined fox), that his wife doesn't understand him, that his methods are slightly unorthodox and that he's a "bit of a character".
What may help a little is to realise that Singh moves around quite a bit (the first book is set in Malaysia, the second in Bali) but in this book he's at home in Singapore. Which nobody, not his bosses, not his wife, not even Singh are particularly best pleased about. What may also help is to realise that despite Singh sounding suspiciously like an Asian Poirot wannabe, and the covers of the book seeming to signal something slightly on the cosier side of crime fiction, well... (sorry can't avoid the pun) you should never judge a book by its cover (or an Inspector by his description). You can, however rely on the suggestion that there's a sly sense of humour behind these books... something that is even more apparent if you're ever lucky enough to come across the author herself, who took to writing after a career in the law, but really could have been just as successful as a stand up comedian.
The Inspector Singh series tackles difficult themes, in different places, but with a tone and style that veers away from too much confrontation. Definitely not cosy, but equally not overly dark, Flint takes the reader into some tricky territory on occasions, using her Inspector Singh character as a foil for the worst excesses of humanity. A detective from the "ask a few awkward questions, appear at the worst time in the suspect's life" school of detecting, Singh's physique isn't going to allow him to do a lot of rushing around, and his personality doesn't fit that bill either. In THE SINGAPORE SCHOOL OF VILLAINY he's even more grumpy and more difficult, seemingly going out of his way to agitate everyone around him, whilst blithely believing that they are, in turn, out to annoy him every step of the way.
Part of the trick in enjoying these books is really all about setting your expectations correctly. If you are a huge fan of the very cosy; of mannered, polite and very English detecting, then Inspector Singh is probably not going to be totally to your taste. I also don't always come away from the books with an overwhelmingly strong sense of the individual places. But I do find myself warming to Inspector Singh. If you're a fan of slightly more edgy than just entertaining books, centred around a central character who's a little bit grumpy, a little bit rumpled, a little bit hot and bothered, more than a bit tricky, and more than occasionally a big bit slyly funny, then this could be the series for you.
THE FENG SHUI DETECTIVE - Nury Vittachi
Mr Wong is a breath of fresh air to the mystery genre. He is a feng shui master who just happens to solve mysteries while giving his clients interior decorating advice as a geomancer; its all about noticing negative chi energy accompanied by simple observations. All Mr Wong wants to do is quietly write a book on oriental wisdom, snippets of which can be found preceding each chapter. Unfortunately his quiet life is shattered when he is forced to take on an assistant, Jo McQuinnie, the daughter of a friend of his boss and a typical western teenager – loud, bubbly and speaking incomprehensible colloquial English.
THE FENG SHUI DETECTIVE is the first in a series of books starring Wong and Jo. Rather than one single plot line through the book there is a progression of different cases, each with its accompanying starter of Feng Shui history. It is a perfect blend of fun and philosophy, a blend of east meets west and each becomes the richer for it. Based in Singapore, the two unlikely partners travel to Malaysia, India, Hong Kong and finish up in a monastery in Vietnam as they take on the different cases. Wong tries to come to grips with with mastery of the English language through Jo, but his attempts to understand Jo’s lingo or mimic it are comical. His initial scepticism of how a young, loud woman could be of any use to him is understandable. But his opinion slowly changes from apprehension to approval as they work through each successive case, each contributing to solving the mystery.
This is a wonderful, intelligent and very funny mystery which will appeal to a broad range of readers who will learn many helpful feng shui tips along the way.
PAPER BUTTERFLY - Diane Wei Liang
Mei Wang is a product of the new China. She works for herself running an “information consultancy” (private detective agencies are illegal, after all).
Mei is hired by a record company executive to find one of their new up-and-coming singing stars. Kaili hasn’t been seen since her last live concert. She just disappeared from her dressing room. The company want her disappearance kept quiet.
The author, Diane Wei Liang was born in China where she spent her early childhood years with her parents in a labour camp in a remote region of China. She was also involved in the student democracy movement in the 1980s and was one of those in Tiananmen Square in that fateful month of June, 1989. This personal experience shines through in the book in the creation of characters and account of life in China.
What I found particularly vivid was the importance of food in China. Nearly every meal is described; many of them mouth-wateringly delicious. One or two sounded awful (boiled tripe in chilli broth, anyone?).
There are three significant events alluded to in THE PAPER BUTTERFLY, the impact of which is quite startling. The Great Leap forward in the late 1950s drastically changed the lives of nearly everyone in China. The 1960s saw the Cultural Revolution, with destruction of historical sites, the outlawing of many traditional cultural practices and the displacement and deaths of millions. It was an ugly time and those events had long-reaching effects. And finally Tiananmen Square which forced the Chinese to realise that there were going to be limits to the new-found freedoms that had been granted to them.
The main theme of THE PAPER BUTTERFLY is how these events impacted on individuals. The mystery is merely a means to an end. I learned a lot about China, its history and people reading this book. It also serves as a powerful reminder not to judge the people of a country by the actions of its leaders.