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Cop shop potboiler Xmas reads

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23 December 2010 12:03

Other Interpreter regulars have offered you serious and worthy tomes for your end-of-year best books consideration. This column goes the other way, with cop shop potboiler Xmas reads, maintaining the Interpreter mantle by picking Asian sleuths.

First up, some rattling good reads from Singapore — tales of murder in Southeast Asia that throw off the bite of chillis, the miasma of curry and a pungent hint of durian. Meet Inspector Singh, the creation of Shamini Flint, who started her professional life as a lawyer in Malaysia and later worked for an international law firm in Singapore.

Inspector Singh offers the kaleidescope of ASEAN in the guise of a police procedural. Surely ASEAN is becoming more than just an elite political construct if it can offer up its own gumshoe genre' The first three Singh books are based in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. With enough sales, Flint can work her way through the other seven ASEAN countries.

As a Singapore Sikh, the Inspector has the eye of an outsider for Southeast Asia, even for aspects of his city-state home. The Inspector is a fat foe of crime; finding the crim is important, but there must always be time for a good lunch. Imagine Horace Rumpole as a Singapore detective with a turban rather than the wig of an Old Bailey hack. Rumpole's philosophy is shaped by the courts; Singh's by corpses. Like Rumpole, Singh is fat, hen-pecked, and ever at odds with his superiors.

The place to start the series, for Australians, is 'Inspector Singh investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul' (the books all have such titles, using the ornate English of an Indian sub-editor tippling from Rudyard Kipling). Singh is dispatched to Bali in 2002 as Singapore's contribution to the investigation of the Bali bombing. That means he spends as much time working with officers from the Australian Federal Police as the Indonesia police.

Flint has an ear for dialogue. She has known enough Australians to able to render Australian speech without tipping into caricature Okker. She pins real Australian speech to the page, not an imagined version of Bazza McKenzie. At the start of book, Inspector Singh is introduced to a senior AFP officer named Atkinson, who has also just flown in to help investigate the Bali bombing.

Atkinson gazed at the Sikh policeman appraisingly. Singh supposed he was not a figure to inspire confidence. He was short and fat with an excessive number of pens in the breast pocket of his shirt. His snowy white sneakers were in contrast to the large blue turban on his head. He had a thin upper lip, a pink, moist protruding lower lip and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, both flecked with white.

Atkinson asked, 'You Moslem''

Singh was really annoyed now. He said, 'Not that it's any of your business, but no.'

'Then why've you got that hanky around your head''

'Because I'm a Sikh and our people have been turbaned for longer than you've had ancestors out of prison.'

Atkinson barked with sudden laughter. 'You might be right about that, mate.'

Singh maintained a stony silence, his lips pursed to indi­cate displeasure.

The Australian continued, 'I don't give a damn whether you're Sikh or Christian or a bloody Moslem for that matter — but as it was a bunch of towel-heads behind the Bali bombs, I thought it was worth asking.'

And there, my fellow Orstrayuns, she has us. The 'hanky around your head' and the 'bunch of towel-heads' is a precise rendering of current Oz patois as she is spoke, from Parramatta to Perth. And political correctness has not yet permeated the AFP to the extent that our senior plods do not voice such vernacular.

The cultural judgements are precise asides thrown off as the sleuthing slips easily along. Here is the Inspector confronting an Australian and an English couple enjoying what he views as the dissipated expatriate life of Bali.

Singh imagined that they had read Kipling in school and when the opportunity arose, come out to Asia in order to enjoy the superiority of 'white­ness' - the unspoken assumption amongst most Asians that anyone white-skinned was that much more likely to be wealthy, educated and related to Hollywood stars. The inspector from Singapore was surprised to find that he resented the two men and two women sitting in a semi-circle across from him like a panel of gameshow contestants. He found their aggressive sullenness aggravating. He did not need to be a student of human nature to realise that they looked down on him as a 'native'...if he was in luck, one of these losers would turn out to be a murderer.

The joy is that this is not a whinge about the burden of dealing with the whites, it is a wonderful exploration of the burden of being Inspector Singh, propelling a rattling-good-read.

In the Singapore murder (Inspector Singh investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy), Flint skips the challenge of delving too deeply into the country where she lives — Singapore lawyers learn appropriate caution. Thus, the crime is committed in the expat milieu of an international law firm based in Singapore. The sharpest Singapore aside is in 'A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder', where the Inspector contemplates the messy, anarchic freedom of the Malaysians and compares it with his tiny island home: 'The nanny state and the police state all rolled into one.'

For a great Australian cop shop read, consider Australia's first female Ocker-Vietnamese sleuth, Detective Constable Nhu Kelly (Australian father & Vietnamese mother). She is referred to throughout the book by her NSW Police moniker: Ned Kelly. 'The Old School' renders the old and new of Australia merging and mashing across the vast bitumen and neon plain of western Sydney.

The writer, PM Newton, spent 13 years as a NSW copper and she captures the sights, sounds and slang. Suffering from a hangover, Ned goes in search of a 'black aspro and grease' – a can of coke and a bacon and egg sanger. The young detective sees the police as an 'overgrown, inbred family' made up of many layers, cliques and interlocking groups, all turned inward by the shared experience of always meeting people for the first time on the worst day of their lives.

The Old School is a fine novel, driven along by a vulnerable detective who is Vietnamese on the outside and deeply Australian (western Sydney division) on the inside. Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin for a detective novel this year, so his book qualifies as large L literature. Newton does some of the same trick, pushing the cop shop potboiler into the hidden parts of Oz.

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