A rapist in a police uniform is stalking Inspector Hal Challis's Peninsula beat, a serial armed robber is headed his way, and there is a very clever, very mysterious female cat burglar who may or may not be planning something on his patch. On top of all that, Challis has been carpeted by the boss for speaking out about police budget cuts.
Meanwhile, at the Waterloo Police Station, something very interesting is going on between Constable Pam Murphy and Jeannie Schiff, the feisty young sergeant on secondment from the Sex Crimes Unit.
Put a book with Garry Disher's name on the cover down on the table at our place and there's bound to be a bit of sighing from certain quarters. Fair enough, it normally means that all forms of communication will cease until the book is finished. Whilst I will admit a slight preference for the Wyatt series, the Challis and Destry books are getting better and better with each outing. I particularly like the way that the focus is switching between the two main characters, and their romance is developing but not taking over from what is, after all, an excellent police procedural. I've even forgiven Disher from moving Waterloo from Central West Victoria to way down on the Peninsula!
In WHISPERING DEATH there's a lot happening on the Peninsula. A rapist in a police uniform, a serial armed robber and a very talented cat burglar. There's also Ellen Destry's trip overseas, the problems of a classic sports car finally starting to fall apart, disposing of a now restored airplane, the bikie's living next door to Destry's new house, and how her daughter is handling her mother's growing relationship with Hal Challis. There's also the little matter of his major spray to a journalist about Government funding of the police service in an area where the population is rapidly expanding. Which does not go down well with his bosses.
Whilst the main investigation - into the rapist wearing a police uniform proceeds, there's a cat burglar working her way around Australia. Normally she does not work in her own state - keeping her backyard clean. It's particularly important on the Peninsula as she keeps a safety deposit box down there. Cautious, she's also one step ahead of her old mentor who is very very keen to even some scores. The fact that an armed robber seems to be heading in their direction just adds to the increasing workload that Challis is already less than happy about - especially as the station is desperately short of resources. So short of resources even investigating the rather creative graffiti showing up on large gateposts is a bit of stretch.
WHISPERING DEATH is written in that beautifully dry, laconic style that Disher has bought to these police procedurals. He also does such a great line in caustic social commentary - be it in Challis having a go about politicians or to the nature of the graffiti showing up on those enormous (perfectly ridiculous really) property entrances that seem to have become the scourge of the tree / sea change areas. Graffiti with a social conscience and a particularly fine sense of the humour.
WHISPERING DEATH, as in earlier books, also gives the supporting cast of characters a bit of time in the limelight. The idea that the book's have central characters that have lives alongside the jobs, that the supporting cast are people in their own right and stuff happens to them, and that there's never just one thing at a time going on in any district really works. Without giving too much away, there's even a series of coincidences in the resolutions which are just delicious - there's nothing contrived about the way that everything eventually sorts itself out.
The one thing that really stands out after reading WHISPERING DEATH is just how deftly the complicated storylines were interwoven with the character's own stories (police and crooks), with no loss of pace, and no chance that the reader would be bamboozled. I was particularly struck by just how cleverly this plot was put together, the way that each particular divergence was timed nicely.
There is simply no better way to spend some time ignoring everything and everybody around you, than reading the latest offering from one of the best writers of Australian Crime Fiction around.
CHAIN OF EVIDENCE - Garry Disher
When 10 year old Katie Blasko goes missing, Ellen Destry is in charge of the case. Katie's from one of the local Estates – a poor, run-down area full of dysfunctional families, violence and drugs. Nearly everybody on the investigation team is pretty sure that Katie's disappearance is yet another family out of control - Katie's either fallen prey to her mother's de facto, she's run away, or any of the other things that happen all too frequently to little kids on the Estate. Ellen Destry's not so sure, she's got this feeling that Katie's been abducted and she's got this nagging concern about rumours that have been flying about a paedophile ring on the Peninsula. She's also more than aware that the powers that be in Waterloo Police Station are not convinced she's up to running an investigation of this type. What makes her really sensitive to their thoughts, is that she's agrees with them.
Hal Challis, however, can't be much help. He's half-way across Australia, in the outback of South Australia, watching his elderly and frail father die. He's also wondering what happened to his brother in law who disappeared a few years before, his car found abandoned in the outback. Hal's sister has always thought he did a runner, after all, she's been receiving strange correspondence which seemed to indicate he was somewhere, alive. Hal's not so sure and, because he can't help himself, he intervenes.
Having read all of Garry Disher's Challis series, CHAIN OF EVIDENCE stands out as the best book thus far – at least for me. There is a deftness in the drawing of the two separate plots, and the characters that gave this book a real focus and tension. The main plot, the possible abduction of the young girl is intricate, complicated and involves the Waterloo Police Station in a number of unexpected ways. The complications of the relationship (or lack of relationship) between Challis and Destry has an extra level of interest because of the physical distance between the two characters. Another element was, what seemed like, a deliberate choice of the types of investigations for both characters – Challis is a dry, sparse, reserved man investigating an old disappearance in a dry, reserved, desert edge town. Destry is a more emotional, complicated, outgoing woman, investigating a messy, complicated and intricate crime in a lusher, familiar environment. In this instance, this didn't resonate as a cliché.
CHAIN OF EVIDENCE flags a strong shift of focus from a series concentrating on Hal Challis, with a touch of Ellen Destry on the side, to a combined focus as both characters take centre stage, albeit in different investigations and in different states. This bodes very well for the ongoing development of this series.
TRUTH LIES BLEEDING - Tony Black
Four teenagers find the mutilated body of a young girl crammed into a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway. Who is she? Where has she come from? Who has killer her - and why?
Inspector Rob Brennan, recently back from psychiatric leave, is still shocked by the senseless shooting of his only brother. The case of the dumpster girl looks perfect for getting him back on track. But Rob Brennan has enemies within the force, stacks of unfinished business, and a nose for trouble.
Tony Black has a taken a break from journalist turned Private Eye Gus Dury in his earlier four novels to write a police procedural featuring Edinburgh cop Rob Brennan. Comparisons are obviously going to be drawn between Dury and Brennan so let's get them out of the way up front. Dury is an outsider, the sort of bloke that trouble will turn right across heavy traffic to have a go at. Brennan's a family man, albeit one that's been indulging in a bit of extra-marital with the police psychologist. One that's having trouble coming to grips with a teenage daughter, and who obviously needs to sort it out with his wife. He's also suffering badly over the unsolved murder of his brother. There's a distinct possibility that trouble for Brennan will be wielding a handbag, looking for a word in his shell-like.
Brennan has just returned to work when he's given the case to solve. The body of a young girl in a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway seems somehow sort of predictable. But as her identity is revealed, her family found, and the fact that she'd recently had a baby of which there is absolutely no sign revealed, Brennan finds himself with quite a complicated problem to solve. Not helped because his boss is climbing the slippery ladder of career achievement and is more than happy to grind her high heels in the head of a subordinate that she can't even pretend to like.
Scottish noir at it's absolute and utter best, TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is a rollercoaster of the personal and professional, dark and light, desperation and determination. The personal relationships swirling around Brennan are drawn beautifully, and the fight to solve the crime, and find this missing baby is just the right mix of frustration and desperation, intuition and good old fashioned detecting. I must admit I did start to wonder at one point what it is about women and Brennan - just about every female character in this book wanted at or rid of him.
Aside from that one observation TRUTH LIES BLEEDING was very difficult to put down. There's none of the lunacy of the Dury books, and despite Brennan being yet another complex and confronted policeman making mistakes, up against the world, put upon and misunderstood, he's a very solid example of those characteristics. Likeable and annoying, understandable and completely inexplicable, Brennan's very believable. I can't remember who said it or where it was, but I do always remember something about police characters needing that sort of conflict in their lives in order to explain their drive to succeed - solve the case. Certainly that idea rang in my head as I read this book, but at no stage is the conflict overdone or overblown. There are echoes of some other well known Scottish detectives from the same location, but Black has set Brennan in the margins of Edinburgh society, sad, grim and surrounded by a lot that seems hopeless, and then he gives him a spark of something that could just mean he's going to get his act together.
PRIME CUT - Alan Carter
The world is in economic meltdown but the mining town of Hopetoun, Western Australia, is booming.
With the town's population exploding, it's easy enough to hide a crime - and a dirty past.
Disgraced police-service golden boy DSC Cato Kwong is doing time investigating roadkill with the Stock Squad. But when the ocean throws up a human torso onto the shores of Hopetoun, Cato is called in from the cold.
There's absolutely nothing like a quintessential Aussie bloke, a cop in purgatory, stuck in outback Western Australia, doing time on the Stock Squad for offending the powers that be. Alan Carter's debut novel PRIME CUT starts out with considerable promise, despite the slightly unrealistic picture of a Stock Squad peering that closely at roadkill!
But the setup is beside the point as DSC Cato Kwong has to be out in the middle of nowhere for some reason, therefore becoming the only option on hand when a mangled torso is washed up on the beach of mining town Hopetoun. Much to his old bosses displeasure. But then it's just for a few days until some resources can be freed up in Perth. So Kwong has a mystery, an existing force of two cops, and a deadline if he wants to drag himself back from the brink of investigating rustling for the rest of his born days. And things are even more complicated when he arrives in Hopetoun to find that one of the local cops is an ex of his, sidelined to the bush because she was badly injured in an incident after they split up, Tess Maguire has problems of her own.
Because Kwong and Maguire both have pasts (separate and their failed relationship) there's obviously going to be a hefty dose of self-evaluation and backward looking focus at points in the book, but that's handled with considerable aplomb - and helped immensely by some really deft touches of humour, and a laid back, Australian sensibility. There's also a point at which you can see that this author has spent some time in this town, he has a keen eye for the effects of a mining boom on a quiet little seaside town and he's developed a good sense of place - albeit a place in the middle of nowhere, a 21st century outback Australian frontier of a sort.
The pressure of the deadline gives the story a good feeling of tension, without it being played overtly. There's a nice balance of investigative ability and observation, assisted by some risky moves and some strong local knowledge. There's also a lot of threads playing out in the book, so the reader is kept well on their toes keeping track of who is who and what is what, let alone why! The characters are really well handled, from the ambitious but flawed Kwong, to the local policeman who can hold his own. Tess Maguire was interesting, her life obviously considerably derailed by her encounter with a man who injured her badly when on duty one night, her story weaves its way into the narrative, just the same as Kwong's personal story is drawn out. The only downside is that towards the end Maguire disappears a bit in the hurly burly. The series stars DSC Cato Kwong, but Carter may just have a team on his hands here. And let's hope that we see a lot more of one or both of them into the future. PRIME CUT really is a terrific debut novel.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE - Qui Xiaolong
Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young "national model worker," revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon's life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth.
To my mind, the very best crime fiction in the world provides a window into the world in which it is set. Be that the psyche of the people, the machinations of the society, how a community is structured and operates, the laws and mores, even the way in which authorities deal with the disorder, how they implement authority. DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is set in Shanghai in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, an ancient city with a population tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Poet Chen Cao is an unlikely policeman, forced into the job by the party system, he's caught between a love of poetry and his own innate sense of responsibility. A loner, a romantic soul, he heads a special unit which is given the task of investigating the brutal murder of Guam Hongying. A National Model Worker, the death of Hongying is viewed as much a political situation as it is a crime.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is a very intricate book, exploring many aspects of the society in which the action takes place. Firstly the character of Inspector Chen Cao, a maverick (as much as you can be under totalitarian control), he's a poet, a loner, a romantic soul forced into the life of a policeman. Enjoying the very small privileges that come with rank, he's also uncomfortable with their existence. He's more fortunate in his friendships - both with long-term friends and with his colleagues.
The second aspect of the book that is carefully explored is the victim herself. Her status as a National Model Worker means that her death hits the desks, and the minds of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Her treatment, in death, as it was in life, is slightly different. The way that her status, and her life was regarded is a particularly interesting aspect of this book, as it leads to the final component of the book worth mentioning - Chinese Society in its own right. Possibly the strongest aspect of the book, because the culture and political system of the society imposes itself over every aspect of it's people's lives. From the way that the investigation is regarded, to the way that Hongying and Chen Coa lead their lives, every move everybody makes is somehow choreographed by the ever present "Party" and its cadres.
The parts of the book that don't work quite as well are the plot, and some of the messages that the author is attempting to impart. Second part first - there is some rather heavy-handed repetition of the ills of Communist China. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the messages being delivered, constant repetition doesn't help. The first part - the plot - well got more than a bit hazy at times. Sometimes this was because we'd wandered so far from the central point of the book memory faded, at other points it was simply because plot points sort of got "dumped" into the narrative. Either way, it's not the most complex or unexpected resolution to the death of an attractive young woman.
It also isn't on the fast, tense, light read side of the scale. This is a book which will require a bit of concentration, some acceptance that as with many debuts, there's a bit of work going on to establish a character and his place in the world. But as a lead into a new series, this book has ticked yes to a lot of questions. This is undoubtedly a series that I want to catch up with. In a hurry.
SCREAM - Nigel McCrery
As people disappear from his streets, and a handful of battered and broken bodies are discovered on his patch, Lapslie has no idea that he's up against a man who feels sound like he can taste it.
I doubt it's much of a coincidence being a big fan of the scripts and the acting in the TV Series NEW TRICKS, that I'm also a fan of the DCI Mark Lapslie series. After all, Nigel McCrery is a writer and creator of both. (Along with many other excellent TV series including Silent Witness and All the King's Men.)
SCREAM is the third in the DCI Mark Lapslie series, Lapslie being an unusual central protagonist who suffers from a particularly acute form of synaesthesia. In other words he experiences sounds as a variety of different flavours. Which makes receiving a very disturbing email; with a sound file attached which appears to be a recording of an unknown woman's death throes particularly confrontational for him. The situation isn't made any easier as Lapslie is in Pakistan at an international course on counter-terrorism, which means he has to fly back immediately to lead the investigation as it's obvious that the killer wants him involved.
In the meantime Lapslie's sergeant, Emma, is leading an investigation into the murder of a woman on Canvey Island. It seems that the victim was tortured before death, and whilst they do manage to identify the victim, it doesn't seem to move the investigation any further. Eventually it's trace evidence and the search to see if they have a serial killer that edges it slowly forward.
Lapslie and Emma have been developing a tentative working relationship in all three of these novels now, although in SCREAM things are complicated by Emma's ongoing relationship with local crook and police informer Dom McGinley. He's a most unlikely love interest for Emma, but there's something very pointed about Lapslie's objections, not that he's got any romantic feelings for Emma himself, his concerns are partly paternal, partly professional.
Obviously Lapslie's synaesthesia (which does contribute to his investigative ability) has been a major element in all the books thus far, although in SCREAM he is getting treatment, and the condition is not as overpowering, and therefore it's not as major a thread throughout the entire book. Which is actually a really good thing. Not only has the condition improved, his life in general is improving, he's even able to enjoy concerts or meals out with a new girlfriend. A considerable change, particularly from the first book, where he was effectively housebound. That sense of moving on helps make this a very engaging series, but I suspect, if you've not read either of the earlier books, you could be missing out on the importance of Lapslie's improved circumstances and outlook. It may make reading this book out of sequence a little less of an enjoyable experience.
But that won't make it an unpleasant experience. McCrery has a very deft manner in the way that he plots out a story, and draws a verbal picture of the forensic and crime scene details. Having said that, the books don't read as a film / TV script in the making - SCREAM is a great novel, with pace, humour, intrigue and tension.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE - Katherine Howell
When Suzanne Crawford is found stabbed to death and her husband Connor is discovered to be missing, it looks like just another tragic case of domestic violence to Detective Ella Marconi. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Why is there no record of Connor Crawford beyond a few years ago? Why has a teenager who worked for the pair gone missing too? And above all, what was the secret Suzanne knew Connor was keeping at all costs – even from her?
Katherine Howell is rapidly becoming one of my stars of crime fiction writing in Australia. Part of what really works in Howell's books (and VIOLENT EXPOSURE is no exception) is the way that the viewpoint is slightly skewed from the common police, detective, investigator concentration. In all the books there is a paramedic viewpoint (no surprise as she was a paramedic herself for 14 years), but I particularly like the way that even that predictable element is slightly twisted in all the books - but even more so in VIOLENT EXPOSURE.
The central thread of this book is the stabbing murder of Suzanne Crawford and the police search for her missing husband, believed to be her killer. The secondary thread is built around a crew of three ambulance officers. Carly and trainee Aidan are called to the Crawford home not long before Suzanne is killed. Aidan, the young trainee, is cocky, opinionated, his work record is poor. Sleeping with Suzanne after attending to her in the aftermath of a domestic assault is just another example of his incredibly poor judgement and behaviour. Carly and Aidan's other supervising senior, Mick, are already writing up very negative reports on Aidan's work performance before that event, but then Mick makes a mistake.
The interesting thing about VIOLENT EXPOSURE is that while that Detective Ella Marconi is investigating the murder of Suzanne Crawford, the thread involving the ambulance officers interweaves and balances out the book. At the same time, Ella's own life isn't left one-dimensional - the job and just the job. She has a teetering relationship with another police officer and aging parents to deal with as well as the day to day difficulties of finding Connor Crawford and working out if he did really kill his wife. These multi-threads create a very realistic feeling for a procedural style of novel, and, despite Howell's own personal background obviously informing one particular aspect, each of the viewpoints feels authentic, well-informed and well-formed.
Howell really writes her characters well, she makes them nuanced. What's particularly interesting in VIOLENT EXPOSURE is the idea that a likeable and sympathetic man like Mike can do something stupid and the reader is left trying to decide whether to condone or condemn. All of the while there's the matching idea that it's all too easy to assume that Suzanne's husband is guilty and to convict him before he's even found.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE has good pace, and a great set of characters. There's an interesting and nicely complicated story behind Suzanne's death, there are ramifications for lots of people's actions, and a nice piece of moral ambiguity to give readers something to chew on. Just some of the reasons Howell is becoming one of my personal stars of crime fiction writing in Australia.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK - R.J. Ellory
The death of a young heroin dealer causes no great concern for NYPD Detective Frank Parrish - Danny Lange is just another casualty of the drug war. But when Danny's teenage sister winds up dead, questions are raised that have no clear answers. Parrish, already under investigation by Internal Affairs for repeatedly challenging his superiors, is committed to daily interviews with a Police Department counsellor. As the homicides continue - and a disturbing pattern emerges - Frank tries desperately to make some sense of the deaths, while battling with his own demons.
I started reading R.J. Ellory's books with A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS which I absolutely loved. Then moved onto THE ANNIVERSARY MAN which made my Top Ten of 2010 and eventually, after I worked out a way to finagle the definition, into the two books that I nominated as my favourites for that year in my contribution to an article in Deadly Pleasures magazine. SAINTS OF NEW YORK is the latest I've been lucky enough to read, and with each book, I just get more and more impressed.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK is veering more towards a traditional procedural crime novel than earlier books, but with Ellory's trademarks of flawed characters, in a dark and murky world, struggling against personal and external demons and pressures.
In Frank Parrish's case, a lot of his demons come directly from the larger than life legacy of his father, one of the original "Saints of New York", the policemen who famously stood up to the Mafia in the early 1980's. Whilst everybody else regards John Parrish as a hero and legend, Frank stands alone, remembering a man who seemed to care more about the job, and the money, and status than he did about his own family. How Frank deals with his own day to day life, as a divorced, alcoholic, desperate and disaffected man, is woven brilliantly into this book as he has been forced to attend daily sessions with a Police Department counsellor. As these sessions proceed, Frank's state of mind, his background and his life are drawn out, just as he inches closer and closer to the killer of what turns out to be more than just one teenage girl.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK has a wonderfully dark, murky, tense and slightly desperate feel about it. It sets itself deep in the underbelly of New York, simultaneously taking you deep into the personal world of Frank Parrish. Violent and dark, there is also an intricate and compelling plot in which a man handles the professional with aplomb and the personal with a staggering lack thereof. I really have no idea how this author does it, but there's something amazingly compelling about Frank Parrish. Which doesn't take anything away from a fast-paced, well plotted novel that takes a few chapters to pull you in and then grabs you and holds onto you until the very end. And then for a while after that.
THE RINGMASTER - Vanda Symon
Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?
Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin.
THE RINGMASTER is the second in the Sam Shephard series from NZ author Vanda Symon. Sam has moved to Dunedin, is in detective training when the body of a young university student is found in the Botanic Gardens. In Sam's world it goes without saying that nothing is ever going to be straightforward, and once the possibility that this murder isn't a solitary event, the connection between murders all over the Southern South Island of New Zealand and a local travelling circus becomes a distinct possibility.
Which, as it does, leads to a sympathetic relationship with an elephant. Which ends badly. So maybe I should get this out of the way up front, things for the elephant don't end well at all, and Sam is just as upset about this outcome as the reader is going to be. But that isn't going to help readers who are completely opposed to anything bad happening to animals. For me, the events, whilst distressing, really demonstrated how sometimes the life of the police isn't a pleasant one. But getting back to the murder investigation, there are aspects of Sam's personality (and personal life) that have come forward from the first book - OVERKILL. There are also aspects of the investigation that remain the same. Sam plays a solo hand again, partly because she's sidelined in a major way by the same bosses that tried to sideline her in the first book, and partly because Sam's much more comfortable out on the edge, playing a solo hand. It's probably that sense that somewhere off in the rough is exactly where Sam is at her best that stops any sense of cliché or convenient repetition. That and the humour, but more on that later.
As with OVERKILL, the great strength in THE RINGMASTER is the characterisations. Using the same tricks as the earlier book, Sam really is easy to identify with. Her own self doubt, her willingness to feel real emotion, make mistakes, beat herself up, be jealous, angry, daft as a brush, brave, sad and rather clever all at the same time.
There is another great supporting set of characters in THE RINGMASTER. Maggie remains, housemate, and best friend, Sam's touchstone. They are now both living in Dunedin, boarding with relatives of Maggie's, their domestic situation seemingly sorted, Sam's emotional life is still a massive rollercoaster. There is a love interest bought forward from the first book, although it takes quite a while for Sam to twig that this is a love interest, and not just some bloke hanging around being annoying. There is also a great sense of place and sensibility. The book doesn't read as a travelogue, but you really do come away from it with an unscratchable itch to see that place, meet those people.
As with the first book, the humour is pitched perfectly. At no stage is the reader allowed to forget that there are victims involved in any series of murders, there are unwitting involvements that impact everyone as a result, and there are the guilty that have their own, often inexplicable reasons, for doing what they do. CONTAINMENT is the next book in the series, followed by recent release BOUND. Do you think it's too much to hope that now that I'm revisiting the first three books, and have the fourth to look forward to, that a fifth isn't that far away?
A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER - Shamini Flint
Inspector Singh is in a bad mood. He's been sent from his home in Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to solve a murder that has him stumped. Chelsea Liew - the famous Singaporean model - is on death row for the murder of her ex-husband. She swears she didn't do it, he thinks she didn't do it, but no matter how hard he tries to get to the bottom of things, he still arrives back at the same place - that Chelsea's husband was shot at point blank range, and that Chelsea had the best motivation to pull the trigger: he was taking her kids away from her.
Think Hercule Poirot in a Sikh turban and the tropical heat of Kuala Lumpur, but add a hefty dose of rumpled Columbo and I think that's the best description of Inspector Singh of the Singapore police that I can come up with. A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER is the first in this series from Singapore based author Shamini Flint.
This book is definitely on the lighter side of crime fiction, I'll have to read the next couple that I have here to be able to say if that's an ongoing characteristic, but I'm guessing it's probably exactly where the books are heading. Whilst there is a shooting murder in this book, it happens off-page, there's very little in the way of rushing around on the part of the main protagonist and whilst there is always the threat of the death penalty hanging over the chief suspect, there's a sense that Inspector Singh will, of course, save the day. Which he does with a hefty dose of gentle humour, quite questioning, observation and just enough prodding of various sore points. Or at least he sort of does. But more on plot later. It seems a more than reasonable expectation that the personality of the main character is going to inform each of his future investigations, and whilst Singh takes his job seriously, he's very much set up to be a "character".
Of course a debut book in a series has to be read with that in mind, and A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER is an unusual book in that Inspector Singh isn't so much "investigating the crime" as checking that another authority have got it right. He's not in his usual territory and must rely on some local support (and use some indifference from the local authorities as a spur to proceed). There's a few subplots working their way through the book - with the chief suspect fighting the Syariah courts for custody of her children, a battle for control of the family company, and a tribe of native people's being butchered, all of which are pulled together at the end of the book with some hefty reeling in of the various lines. It's not too hard to work out that these threads are all going to coincide, and therefore have some idea of where the resolution is coming from, but there are precious few clues for the reader to work with. Really there's less of a solving and more of a revealing going on, and because of that I doubt it's going to be a very satisfactory ending for fans of guessing the culprit before the author reveals all.
As the start of a new series of rumpled, "character" type detectives, I thought A MOST PECULIAR MALAYSIAN MURDER was a good, light, fun read, introducing a new protagonist who really seems to have some potential. In future books I really hope that he hits his stride, embraces his inner grumpy old man and gets to grips with his surroundings. I'm also hoping that the next books have a little more leeway to introduce the world that Inspector Singh inhabits, as this first book did seem to have it's hands full introducing him.