by Shamini Flint
Many years ago, having left Tokyo where I had been teaching English, I was on my way home via Bangkok. I had flown to Thailand and cycled south from Bangkok to Hat Yi, where I met a handsome young man from Kuwait. I put my bicycle in storage and spent a breathless, hot, humid two weeks with my new boyfriend. We visited Chinese temples and dusty gardens where dusty Muslim women strolled, all in black, and went to waterfalls with giggling Thai girls in skimpy bikinis. We ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but only with our right hands. My boyfriend was suffering from terminal ennui. The bored young man’s father was insisting he return to the Middle East and pilot school. His father was not much fun. After some time, I discovered, neither was the young man. So I boarded a train south for Malaysia. New country, new fun.
I ended up in KL, or Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where I met an elderly taxi driver from New Zealand. Bob became my ersatz grandparent. We had a great time eating peanut satay on the street and visiting the zoo. We stayed in Little India with a Malaysian man of Indian origin whose dream was to invent a bestselling board game.
A Most Peculiar…er…Delightful…Malaysian Novel
What I enjoyed about this novel is how it continually compared and contrasted Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia used to be the same country–Malaya. But now, Singapore is a tiny island of apparent moral rectitude divided from the Malaysian peninsula by a thin strip of water. KL is dirtier, and livelier. People have old cars. (Bob and I both had planned to go to Singapore, but got distracted by Malaysian delights like visiting the Batu Caves (featuring the original See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys) and playing 6-colored Go with our Indian host.
In this novel, Inspector Singh comes from Singhapore…er Singapore, to KL at the behest of his government to be sure that the rights of homicide suspect and Singapore citizen Chelsea Liew are not violated by (corrupt) Malaysian police. Singh quickly determines that she could not possibly have killed her abusive husband, Alan Lee–she is too pretty! (SIGH) And his job is done. But wait, there’s more! A family member confesses to the murder. Inspector Singh quickly susses that Jasper Lee’s motives are suspect, but Singh isn’t sure what his true motives are. In addition, Chelsea Liew and Alan Lee had recently filed for divorce and each wanted custody of their three sons.
At one point, Inspector Singh drives his police-issue vehicle around KL for 2 hours without being able to find his way back to police headquarters. He parks the car and takes a taxi. He ponders whether or not his winding path around the city is a metaphor for the case, which seems like a labyrinth.
In a scary subplot, Inspector Singh discovers that before his death, Alan Lee had asked the divorce court for a 2-week recess. The reason? So he could convert to Islam. Even though he’s dead, his kids are now automatically Muslim. That means that Chelsea Liew is probably about to lose her kids to the ruling of a Sharia court. The kids would go to a Moslem children’s home as orphans, because to a Sharia court, the most important thing is that Muslim kids are raised by Muslims. Never mind the fact that these boys have never been in a mosque in all their lives, and that their paternal grandmother cooked them pork stew just the week before. As she has done all their lives. Never mind the fact that the court would be ripping the kids from their mother and placing them with strangers. OMG. If the Founding Fathers of America were still alive, I would hug them around their kneecaps in religious gratitude for their insistence on the separation of church and state.
The author makes it clear that Alan Lee’s “conversion” is not heartfelt, which would be different. Still problematic, but different. No, he was a cynical Chinese businessman and abusive husband who was determined to “win” at all costs. And he still might. (However, we get a scene where Alan Lee’s mother claims she cooked this pork stew for him the week before he died…a true Muslim would not eat it…)
What’s Borneo Got To Do, Got to Do With It?
Alan Lee used to be the head of Lee Timber, a logging company which has been illegally logging forest reserve land in Borneo. Unfortunately, his cruel and cold little brother Lee Kian Min has taken over the company, which he’s really been running for years. Chelsea Liew’s housemaid is from Indonesia, as are lots of Malaysian servants and illegal immigrants. I didn’t get it. Were these countries not far apart? (Answer, no. One of the great pleasures of reading is learning things, and boy did I. Not only does one of the long Indonesian islands in the world’s biggest archipelago parallel the Malay peninsula, the island of Borneo is half owned by Malaysia.) But illegal logging isn’t all that Lee Timber is up to, the corporate villains. They’re also intimidating the indigenous Borneo tribe the Penan, and forcing them off their land. You know, so they can cut down all the trees and contribute to worldwide pollution. Awesome.
Inspector Singh doesn’t think so. And his Malaysian counterpart, inspector Mohammed, who quotes Shakespeare only when he is good and pissed off, doesn’t think so either. When the men combine their cunning and experience to solve a murder, great things happen.
Along the way we meet Mrs. Wong, a brave and clever Chinese landlady with the intestinal fortitude to take on corrupt policemen along with the ironing, Alan Lee’s remorseful young Muslim girlfriend Sharifah who moves from being a victim to a force of nature, and a blue-eyed Englishman named Rupert who may just have the power, the contacts and the chutzpah to bring Lee Timber to its knees.
I enjoyed this murder mystery immensely. Although the back of the novel compares it to my close personal friend Colin Cotterill’s Laos cozy series featuring Siri Paibun, and also Alexander McCall Smith, I felt it was a bit darker than that. Still a great read. I understand that Inspector Singh travels to many countries–it just worked out well for me that this one was Malaysia, from Singapore.
PS–Of Backpackers & Ritzy Hotels
The novel mentions the Mandarin Oriental as THE place to stay in KL. My British friends Gary and Julia had told me that back in the day, THE place to stay in Singapore was the Raffles Hotel…the Raffles was the spot upon which the historic Singapore Sling was invented.
Rating: Five old-growth hardwood trees NOT chopped down in the rainforest!