Monday, 7 March 2011

Sleuthing across Southeast Asia

Photo by: Lizy Cherian
Shamini Flint, creator and author of the Inspector Singh series.

via CAAI

Monday, 07 March 2011 14:05 Nick Walker

Bookstores have long been packed with world-weary Caucasian detectives who wrestle with mysterious homicides as well as with their own depressing family issues.

Flinty-eyed cops like Peter James’ Roy Grace, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, to mention just three globally mega-selling protagonists.

Inspector Singh of the Singapore police force is an altogether more exotic loner.

Yet he’s reassuringly familiar.

This Sikh crime-buster is flawed, stubborn and ultimately always nails the bad guys, though often at a price to his mixed reputation with his superiors.

To use the patois of Southeast Asia: same same, but different.

In any event, he’s a welcome addition to the crime-fiction genre for reasons of diversity.

Like more formulaic creations, Singh’s a sympathetic maverick.

And as with many of his ilk, he has problems with self-control.

But in a neat narrative twist, his wife provides an entertaining foil to the gentle turbaned giant. And so it’s hard not to warm to the scruffy, paunchy and profusely sweaty cop.

Addicted to curry – especially when cooked by the headstrong Mrs Singh – he also has a fondness for beer and cigarettes that runs counter to his Sikh faith.

But the inspector lives by his own rules. And is driven by a powerful thirst for justice. He’s also shrewder than his dishevelled appearance might suggest, as many of the perps in the books learn.

The next Singh mystery is set in Cambodia and will hit the bookstores this month. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree is the fourth book in the series by Malaysian lawyer-turned-author Shamini Flint.

The latest adventure finds her character in Phnom Penh – wishing he wasn’t.

He’s been sent as an observer to the international war crimes tribunal, the latest effort by
his superiors to ensure that he is anywhere except in Singapore.

But for the first time the fat Sikh inspector is on the verge of losing his appetite when a key member of the tribunal is murdered in cold blood.

It isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in one of the most terrible murder investigations he’s seen – the roots of which lie in the dark depths of the Cambodian killing fields.

How did this fellow who criss-crosses Asia in pursuit of nefarious individuals originally come about?

His creator, Shamini Flint, says: “Inspector Singh is a composite character, as all characters are, but he does borrow strongly from family members.

That old-fashioned conservatism comes from my extended family.

And from my background as a lawyer he got his moral compass.

“I’ve known people in the legal profession hell-bent on pursing justice, and who don’t count the cost when a principle has to be upheld.

They form the backbone of the inspector.

And part of him is me too; recently I realised that his slightly ‘dipsy’ tone is actually me. So it gradually transpired that me and the ‘fat man’ have quite a lot in common,” the author says.

Three well-received instalments of the Inspector Singh series have already been published, and, unusually for this genre, the detective’s house-proud wife is a major supporting character as well as a supportive one.

Could this be her own mother, who hails from India’s Kerala state?

“She is my mother! Oh my God – oh dear! – I’m so glad she didn’t hear that!

It’s actually not my mother to be fair, although there are definitely elements of her in Mrs Singh.

My mother’s actually quite a rebel, a point she made by marrying so far out of her Kerala community [to a Tamil gentleman from Sri Lanka].

Mrs Singh is also all my aunts. My father has four sisters, and she’s all of them.

They’re wonderful; they have so much pride in their people and their bloodlines and their children and the education of those children and their homes.”

Today living in Singapore, with four young children and her husband, one of many English expats who works in Singapore’s financial sector, the 40-year-old Flint is well qualified to depict the diverse casts and settings she presents in the Inspector Singh series.

Cross-cultural issues are keenly observed in the Inspector Singh books, largely because of the author’s geographically disparate background.

“I am Malaysian – born in Penang, and grew up in and studied in various parts of the country.

I left only when the time came for me to go to university, when I went to the UK, so I think of myself as Malaysian.

As for my parentage, I’m half Sri Lanka Tamil and half-Indian from the west coast.”

Flint was already an acclaimed and successful writer of children’s books, often based on environmental themes, before she turned to crime fiction three years ago.

As a writer of multiple genres, Flint is furiously disciplined, thanks, she reasons, to her previous occupation.

“I don’t really think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as an ex-lawyer who happens to be writing, so what I try to bring to my writing is a professional day-to-day routine,
like a lawyer or doctor or similar, someone with a rigid full-time job.

So I wake up, get the kids off to school, drag myself over to the computer with my coffee, deal with a few emails, and then I get down to it.

The lawyer in me finds it much easier to edit an existing document than to create a new one, so I’d much rather over-write and let some rubbish sneak in and then take it out, than wait for the perfect sentence, or perfect idea, to come.”

Aside from retaining the work habits of a legal eagle, Flint is still attached to the profession, as is revealed in her storylines.

“If Inspector Singh hadn’t taken off I would have gone back to law right now. I love
the profession.”

Readers note that the Inspector Singh books have a cosy, old-school feel to them, and the source of this is the books Flint herself enjoys.

“I read a lot of crime novels, and my greatest fondness is for the more thoughtful, English-style whodunits.

Books by writers like Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, PD James and Ian Rankin, rather than trigger-happy, shoot-‘em-up American-style crime, or heavily forensic-based crime. I’ve always enjoyed reading the more cerebral and structured whodunits that have lots of interaction between characters and time for a little bit of humour
and reflection.”

In an age when it seems crime writers try to outdo each other with ever-higher body-counts and increasingly graphic violence, Flint is pulled in the other direction.

“I find many current crime writers too dark. I don’t like crime for crime’s sake, I don’t like violence against women for the sake of it, I haven’t had a woman murdered yet [in the Inspector Singh books] – I struggle to go there – although I have had a female murderer.

“I like to think there’s a redemptive quality in humanity, and I want that captured in my books.

So the Inspector Singh novels are about bad people doing good things and good people doing bad things, rather than about pure nastiness, like a lot of contemporary crime.”

Flint’s warm and old-school story-telling has a burgeoning following.

A large number of translation rights have now been sold for the Inspector Singh franchise, most recently in Serbian and Polish.

Almost three years after it was first published, the first Inspector Singh book – Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder – has come out in the United States, and book two – Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul – is coming out there this year.

“Getting Inspector Singh into the US this year was a big breakthrough,” Flint says, large brown eyes shining.

Flint is currently toiling on her most ambitious Singh novel yet.
“I’m struggling with ‘Singh India’ – 79,500 words thus far and no ending in sight.”

The Inspector Singh story is even more remarkable than one might assume.

Book three in the series – Inspector Singh Investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy – was self-published before being picked up by British literary giant Little, Brown Book Group who asked her, in 2007, to rework it substantially as the third book in the series and get started on the debut Inspector Singh novel.

With a mischievous smile, Flint says: “I can’t wait to write a crime novel that’s really rubbish and get away with it, because that means I’ve truly made it.”

Nick Walker is a book reviewer and travel writer currently based in Singapore.

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