Singapore's food-loving cop cracks a case in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing
by Shamini Flint
4 stars

Guy Haydon

The portly, hen-pecked, cold beer and hot curry-loving Inspector Singh makes an unlikely hero - on the surface, at least - in Shamini Flint's entertaining series of six detective novels.

The short Sikh sleuth in his turban stands out from the usual crime-solving suspects: the food-loving, 50-something maverick Singaporean policeman, who wears white sports shoes on the job because "I run faster in these" - even though he has not voluntarily broken into a trot for 20 years - has a talent for catching killers.

In Flint's latest instalment, A Calamitous Chinese Killing, a young man dies after being chased by armed thugs into a dark alley in Beijing. Police conclude the student, Justin Tan, was beaten to death during a robbery that went wrong.

However, Justin was the son of Susan Tan, Singapore's first secretary in Beijing, and she is not convinced by the finding. She has heard of Singh's sleuthing skills, which include solving a murder in India while attending a family wedding (in book five A Curious Indian Cadaver), and demands that he be sent to investigate in Beijing. "Singh's a bit of a character, he might be able to see things that we can't," Tan says. "I was reading about him, he has a nose for trouble and no respect for authorities."

When we first meet Singh, "the plump pursuer of the truth", he seems anything but a dynamic detective. His bad-tempered wife is giving him the latest of many tongue-lashings - venting her fury over mainland Chinese coming to her home city, particularly younger women, who marry older men to secure residency, and her newly broken, China-made plastic bucket.

"Why do you buy it if you think the quality is so poor?"

"Cheaper," she responded.

"You get what you pay for," he pointed out.

"That's what my father said when I complained about you."

"She was referring, of course, to the dowry her family had paid all those decades ago when he married her. Despite his successful battles of words with senior police officers, hardened criminals, high court judges and highly paid lawyers, he'd never won a verbal encounter with this wife."

Flint allows Singh to appear a figure of fun while deftly blending these witty exchanges between the harried cop and his wife, and his equally grumpy boss, with grittier, sometimes shocking narrative threads.

We follow academic Professor Luo Gan, beaten by prison guards at a labour camp; heartbroken Dao Ming, struggling to come to terms with the death of her boyfriend; her controlling former beau, Wang Zhen, who is pressuring her to get back together with him; and an exhausted factory worker, Qing, who is weighing up the dangers of revealing a secret, which might lead to a pay-off and a better life.

We also follow Anthony Wan, the first secretary's husband, desperate for a business deal to be approved to help pay off his debts; media-savvy policeman Fu Xinghua, who crushes corruption in a hail of bullets; and his crusading boss, Beijing deputy mayor Dai Wei (clearly inspired by disgraced princeling Bo Xilai), whose populist appeal has been built on a foundation of Mao-era revivalism and a brutal crackdown on the Chinese mafia.

Singh arrives in Beijing three weeks after the student's death, with only a week to investigate. Teamed with a disgraced retired policeman, Li Jun, Singh is initially reminded that the mainland police are likely to have been right all along, so he will be merely confirming their findings. Yet once he starts to dig he finds people are reluctant to answer his questions; another has vanished without trace. Then the body count rises.

The Singapore-based Flint's stories are written in a straightforward, accessible style and - despite the humour found in Singh's character - are surprisingly edgy. The former corporate lawyer does not shy away from controversial topics: Singh confronts many of the real-life issues affecting mainland China, including corrupt officials, land-grabbing developers and the persecution of members of banned spiritual group Falun Gong.

One gut-wrenching scene sees hospitalised prisoners fighting for their lives - literally - when they realise syringe-wielding nurses have come to kill them so their organs can be given to rich patients awaiting transplants.

Flint has a keen, often scalpel-sharp eye for a telling detail and convincing dialogue. She cleverly cranks up the tension as Singh and his assistant, Li, put their lives at risk as the case grows ever murkier.

Each of Flint's novels, which also include A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, The Singapore School of Villainy and A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree, sees the detective treading on many toes in his trainers around Asia as he investigates major controversies and global issues, including bombings and crimes against humanity. This has helped the books resonate with readers.

Such is the global success of the books that Flint is in talks about them being filmed as a television series; she has imagined Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley as Singh.