Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Crime in Singapore

Apparently Jake Needham's newly published second volume of his Inspector Tay series, The Umbrella Man, is available only in a Kindle version because the government of Singapore is not happy with his portrayal of their island republic. Having been to Singapore, and having just read The Umbrella Man, I can well believe that. The novel is about the blending of personal, professional, and cultural disasters, but the story is grounded in an unusually direct portrayal of the consequences of Singapore's quest for stability and prosperity at the expense of other democratic goals.

The novel begins with a series of bombings that will inevitably suggest terrorist attacks across the world (particularly, to an American reader at least, 9/11). The attack destroys the architectural and commercial heart of the city-state, as well as the confidence of its citizens. But Tay, due to the events of the previous novel, The Ambassador's Wife, is persona non grata with his own superiors and with the U.S. authorities who are elbowing their way into the bombing investigation. Tay is shunted aside into the investigation of a single, seemingly insignificant, murder in an apartment at the distant edge of Singapore.

But Tay is, of course, determined to leverage his assignment into an investigation of the larger crime, and with the help of his long-suffering assistant, as well as a coroner, and a few others (including the mysterious American spook who played a large role in The Ambassador's Wife, plus a ghost from Tay's past) Tay stumbles up against both the truth and the solid resistance of almost everyone else involved in the bombing investigation.

The story is not a straight-ahead police procedural or thriller. Tay is led back and forth from his own family history to various possible truths about the smaller and the larger case, through official theories about the bombing and the murder and through versions of the truth that relate directly to Singapore's politics and culture. The ending evolves directly from Tay's life and his dogged pursuit, without stretching credulity or falling into the cliches of grand international conspiracy (a sort of novel for which I have little use). Needham, in fact, leads the reader forward with Tay's convictions and uncertainties, into the avenues and the back streets of a Singapore that he has surgically opened up with the fictional device of the bombings. The result is an unusually potent combination of the potent drivers of noir, criminal acts and social insight.

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