Wednesday 12 November 2008

Murder, she wrote

Criminal Minds by Shamini Flint (Heliconia Press, 2008, 246 pages)

I seem to have gone off Serious Literature. One of the last literary novels I read was set in Malaya but had people crowding around a TV set to watch the live proclamation of Merdeka. Something didn’t seem right: sure enough, our country didn’t even have TV in 1957! And that book was published by an international firm that could afford fact-checkers.

So call me a philistine, but I’ve been finding it difficult to finish any novel that does not happen to be a juicy murder mystery. Unlike other types of novels, there’s always a reason to turn the page: to find out whodunit, of course.

This brings us to Criminal Minds. I was aware of it for some time but had resisted because I didn’t like the title and cover. (There: My shallowness is now complete). I particularly didn’t like the label “Asian Crime Fiction.” This was a novel set in Malaysia and written by a Malaysian-born, Singaporean author. Was the word Asian (written in the same type that you’d find, in neon, for a Chinese restaurant) a transparently desperate attempt to downplay these relatively unglamorous countries?

True, my curiosity was piqued when I found out that Shamini Flint had since sold the rights to her crime novels to the UK publisher Little, Brown. Truly a case of Malaysia, or Singapore, boleh! But then I remembered that Merdeka TV set, and I decided that I didn’t have enough confidence in UK publishers to give this book a go.

This changed when I saw the author introduce herself at a reading session at No Black Tie. Most writers simply cannot read their books in public; they have this mumbling, aw-shucks personas that make you want to end their miseries by whacking them with their deservedly unpopular tomes, But her brilliant, hilarious, topical introduction made me aware that I was in the presence of a major talent. (I have uploaded the moment on Youtube, so you can check for yourself).

So I bought Criminal Minds, and finished it in 48 hours. I scooted out to a bookstore and bought her earlier book, Partners in Crime, and finished that in 24.

Partners in Crime (another lame title) takes place in Singapore. But Criminal Minds takes the same investigator, Inspector Singh, to Kuala Lumpur. He is the only character that the two books have in common, although he is far from a conventional sleuth.

Inspector Singh is fat, coarse, sweaty and drinks on the job. In Criminal Minds, he is assisted by Sergeant Shukor, who is younger and hunkier. I picture this double-act to be like Wexford and Burden in Ruth Rendell’s mysteries.

The novel does many things very well. As a mystery, it succeeded in keeping my eyes (to use that particularly disagreeable cliché) glued to the page. I never suspected the eventual murderer, so adept is Flint at tossing red herrings. And here’s the catch: when you do find out the killer, it’s not through Inspector Singh’s doing. The same was true of the earlier novel, too.

Inspector Singh is an anti-detective, or maybe even an existential detective. He keeps things moving but is not the moral, emotional or even narrative centre. The complacent notion of the detective as omniscient deity has been splendidly debunked.

Since the Inspector is Malaysian-born but working in Singapore, he becomes our conduit for many tartly humorous observations about the commonalities and differences between us. I won’t spoil them for you, as Flint is a much better guide.

Criminal Minds isn’t ‘just’ about the murder of the amoral millionaire Alan Lee. (Was it his beautiful, long-suffering wife? His bitter son? One of his two brothers? Stay tuned!)

The fact that the deceased was a timber tycoon opens up opportunities to speak of our ‘close one eye’ culture, as well as the continuing plight of our indigenous people. (One of the characters is a Bruno Manser-type). And that’s not all: Alan’s sudden conversion to Islam, in the midst of a custody battle, also brings the hot-button topic of religious bullying into the mix.

The UK publisher, bless them, has re-titled this book Inspector Singh Investigates – A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, and it will be re-released next year. I look forward to reading it again, with the inevitably nicer cover.

(Malay Mail, 12 November)


Logan Lamech said...

We all have to take a break from the more serious content once and a while.

Logan Lamech

Anonymous said...

How & where to get this novel?

Amir Muhammad said...

I got one of them at a reading, and the other at Borders The Curve. I don't think it's widely available anymore because the UK edition is meant to be the definitive international edition, and that is coming out only next year. But call up the shops and ask :-)