One of the delusions publishing houses appear to suffer from these days is that a book has to be depressing to be taken seriously. To be considered really good. In the world of police procedurals this often means at least a couple of these characteristics: a dysfunctional detective with an addiction or two, a location beset by months of darkness, gruesome crime scenes (usually involving the mutilated bodies of young women) and a portion of the tale seen through the eyes of the killer. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series offers none of these qualities but I would argue it’s just as serious – and just as good – as crime fiction gets.
Here Flint sends her irascible Singaporean Inspector to Cambodia where he is to have a ‘watching brief’ over an International War Crimes Tribunal on behalf of ASEAN which wishes to demonstrate its solidarity with Cambodia. Really it is a way for Singh’s Superintendent to keep his irksome subordinate out of the way for a while and Singh is not happy about the prospect of having nothing practical to do. He does not see himself as a thumb twiddling observer. In fact
It was Singh’s life mission to tramp after the murderers in his snowy white sneakers, following the evidence and his instincts, ignoring the advice and warnings of his superiors, stopping only for regular meals, cold beer and the odd afternoon nap, until he had ensured some justice for the dead.
It is not unreasonable then that Singh is irritated at being taken away from his ‘real’ work. But as fate would have it one of the witnesses at the Trial is murdered and Singh, who has already befriended Colonel Menhay, the military policeman in charge of security at the Tribunal complex, is invited to be a joint leader of the subsequent investigation along with the Colonel. With the help of Singh’s reluctant translator Chhean they attempt to find a motive and perpetrator for the witness’ murder before the entire war crimes process is abandoned due to fears about security.
The story takes place about 30 years after the Khmer Rouge’s horrendously bloody reign over Cambodia ended but the country and its people are a long way from recovery. Flint teases out the various ways people individually and collectively are grappling with their memories, their loss, their anger, their guilt. And, for those like the man on trial, their self-righteous indignation that anyone dares question their right to have behaved as they did. If it had nothing else to offer the book would be worth reading for providing these accessible insights into a difficult topic.
However the book has loads more to offer. The story itself is a cracker; proving several false ends as different characters attract suspicion and others try to influence the investigation’s outcome in one way or another. What I particularly love about the story though is that it never once takes the easy route. There are several plot threads that could provide the warm and fuzzy resolution that the novel’s bright cover and jaunty title font hint at but Flint doesn’t succumb to these temptations. Without being depressing purely for the sake of it, each thread is resolved realistically, occasionally with humour and, where necessary, incorporating the sadness that often accompanies traumatised people going about their fractured lives. The book also manages to show us the myriad shades of grey that come into play when exploring the nature of good vs evil or right vs wrong. As Inspector Singh muses when a resolution of sorts is at hand
It would have to do. In Cambodia, he feared, there were only small successes, no grand triumphs.
The Inspector is, as always, a delightful and surprisingly complex character. His foibles – such as his love of good food (something he struggles to find in Phnom Penh) – are on show but so are his basic humanity and his desire to see justice prevail. Here it is not always possible to discern which path will achieve that – or even what justice looks like – and Singh is really forced to struggle with his own morality on occasion. The characters new for this story – including the Colonel and Chhean the translator – are the kind who linger long after the book is finished.
I don’t know what else you could possibly want from a novel than an evocative setting, a genuinely thought provoking narrative and characters who worm their way into your heart. Even those who haven’t read earlier instalments of this series need not worry: this is a novel that stands entirely on its own. So, you’ve no excuse not to find yourself a copy.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Piatkus 
Length 310 pages
Book Series #4 in the Inspector Singh series