Thursday, June 26, 2008

Crime in Singapore

The notoriously crime-free island state of Singapore (equally notorious for executing or caning some of thse who do practice criminal trades there) is the setting for the first in a new series of "Asian Crime" fiction from a Singapore imprint, Heliconia. Singapore has actually been the scene for a few other crime novels, from Foreign Bodies, by Hwee Hwee Tan (which mixes crime, post-adolescent angst, and even spiritual awakening) to the comic novels of Gopal Baratham (two of which have been published by Serpent's Tail) to the post-WWII street kids of Ming Cher's Spider Boys to the criminal (but not really crime-novel) enterprise of Paul Theroux's Saint Jack (a book said to be banned in Singapore itself). The new book, Shamini Flint's Partners in Crime, is a legal mystery, as was Foreign Bodies, and both novels also share a split perspective anchored by a single woman who is a young lawyer. Flint's lawyer, Annie N..., is mixed race (her actual cultural background obscured by that partially concealed family name), giving her a certain ability to negotiate among the various racial groups in the complex culture of Singapore. I'm including the older cover for the book, which highlights the author's own cultural mix as well as the plot of the story, rather than the newer one, which merely features an orchid and an abbreviated signature. Annie becomes involved in a murder investigation when she is called to a late-night partners' meeting at the law firm where she has recently been made partner, to find the head of the firm bludgeoned to death at his desk. The rest of the book is primarily a series of character studies, conducted much as a police investigation would progress: by a series of interviews and dialogues. The partners, all of them suspects, gradually reveal their own character flaws, sustaining the narrative without quite creating the suspense or anticipation expected in a crime novel. In that sense, Partners in Crime is more of a mystery, less a procedural or noir sort of crime fiction. The notion of "unlikely suspects" applies more to the romance between Annie and another lawyer than to the mystery, though it's difficult to anticipate the solution to the puzzle. But the unlikely romance is actually a bit of a cliche, as is the final confrontation. Nevertheless, the novel is professionally done, moving along in short "takes," each from a different character's point of view (the Sikh detective, his young Chinese assistant, and several of the lawyer-suspects, who are mostly English ex-pats). And the Singaporean setting blends the wealthy ex-pat community with the lives of the professional policeman and his working-class assistant, Filipina maids, male prostitutes, etc. etc., within the glitz of Orchard Road and Raffles Hotel, the old graveyard of the book's original cover, and the bars and boardrooms of the city-state. The book was a little hard to get, and not cheap, but I enjoyed it, and will I happily add it to my short shelf of Singapore crime. Heliconia is evidently coming out with a crime in Malysia next, which could be interesting...

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