11 November 2010

The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

Poirot in a turban
This is a book in the tradition of Murder on the Orient Express: a corpse, a small group of improbable suspects, and a caricatured but lovable detective.
Inspector Singh is now in his third book and just as roly-poly, cynical, scornful of authority and X-ray eyed about human nature as before. And yes: he’s still soft hearted and crusty-exteriored too.
I love relaxing with books like these – especially when as well written as this one. It’s not just the tight, precise, almost formal and aesthetically appealing language it uses that I admire but also the liberal sprinkling of offbeat expressions and creative metaphors that it frequently surprises readers with.
As crime fiction per se I must admit I wasn’t very impressed with the plot because almost all the whammies were visible way before they were executed. What I did like was the use of Singapore as setting and the glimpses of this unlikely tourist, education and career destination as police state, multicultural and multiracial paradise, haven for expatriates (where life is a carefully arranged dream) – and even little treats such as a visit to the legendary Raffles Hotel, that famed Meeting Place of the World’s Travellers.
At one level the book even serves as an incisive exposé of oppressive Indian society and the hidebound traditions and deep rooted prejudice which have the power to cripple and destroy its very brightest and most precious people, even as India claims its place as a user and supplier of high technology and a greedy market for the developed world.
I also liked the interpretation of life in a traditional Indian arranged marriage, as seen through the eyes of Mrs. Singh. There’s underlying warmth, of course, but the two are basically from different planets. Here, for instance, is a little of what Mrs. Singh is about:
When she had married Singh, he had been a junior policeman with a bright future. He had been smart, fit and ambitious. She had imagined him as the commissioner of police, attending functions at the Istana, the palace residence of the President – wife by his side, of course. Instead, Singh had been assigned to his first murder case and never looked back. He had abandoned his bright future to devote his life to the business of hunting down killers. It was all so sordid. People didn’t get killed without good reason. She, Mrs. Singh, didn’t condone murder, of course. But there was no doubt in her mind that the victims were at least partly to blame.

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