Sleuthing Across Southeast Asia
Lawyer-turned-author SHAMINI FLINT, creator of Inspector Singh, talks to NICK WALKER about the books that are putting the Asian region on the crime fiction map
THE BOOKSTORES and bestseller lists 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 megaselling protagonists.
Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police Force is an altogether more exotic loner. And 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 the 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 to their cost.
How did this remarkably original fellow who crisscrosses Asia in pursuit of nefarious individuals originally come about? His creator, Malaysian lawyer-turned-author Shamini Flint, explains. “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 slender 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 man 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. And at the end of the day, all very kind-hearted.”
Today residing in Singapore, with two 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. “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 Lankan Tamil and half-Indian from the west coast, The God of Small Things part of the state, Kerala.
Cross-cultural issues are keenly observed in the Inspector Singh books, in large part because of the author’s geographically disparate background. “It’s hard for people who are not from the subcontinent to understand, but my parents were as foreign to each other, and their families were as foreign to each other, as if one of them had gone off to marry an American or an Inuit. There’s been a lot of conflict in my cultural identity.
“My mother and father’s extended families came from such different ethnic groups that they never really took to each other. And so I’ve come to be comfortable with my uncomfortable identity. Compounding this, my father was a major in the Malaysian Air Force, so there again I was in a very small minority—the offspring of an Indian serviceman. Most of my father’s peers’ children were Malay.
“After he left the air force we moved to the city, where I was going to schools that were predominantly Chinese, again somewhat isolating. Looking back, I can see that one of the reasons I look at life fairly cynically and with a beady eye is because of this feeling of being an outsider most of my life. And now I’m a foreigner living in Singapore and married to an Englishman. I still haven’t found my home. As a Malaysian it’s hard to feel that Singapore is home.”
Because of the nature of her father’s work, Flint’s family moved around a lot within Malaysia, and spent “a few defining years in Kuantan, a town on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, a glorified fishing village, which actually features quite a lot in my children’s books.”
Flint was already an acclaimed and commercially successful writer of children’s books, often based on environmental themes, before she turned her hand 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, 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, and I don’t come back for air until a quick lunch, and then I carry on until the kids come back from school at about 2:30pm. Then I spend time with them till bedtime, and then, if I have the energy, I try and get a couple more hours done in the evening.
“The lawyer in me finds it much easier to edit an existing document than to create a new one, so I’d much rather overwrite and let some rubbish sneak in and then take it out, than to wait for the perfect sentence, or perfect idea to come—because I would not recognise it even if it happened that way.”
Aside from retaining the work habits of a legal eagle, Flint is still attached to the profession, as is revealed in her storylines, but which she is able to present as engaging and accessible to non-legal minds. “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 kind of 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 Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, P.D. 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 finds herself being pulled in the other direction. “I find many current crime writers today 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 women murderer.”
With an ever-so-slightly challenging tone, she adds: “I don’t mind women taking matters into their own hands and killing people, I just don’t like them being subjected to gratuitous violence!”
Then she adopts a more philosophical voice. “I don’t want to write bleak books about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things while an unpleasant cop chases after them—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.”
The next minute her inner writer-for-youngsters speaks. “I have small children, and also a lot of my children’s books deal with improving matters in the world, so I wouldn’t be comfortable—I mean my girl is eight and in a few years she might be reading my adult books, so I’m kind of mindful of that.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not painting the world blacker than it already is.”
Flint’s warm and old-school storytelling has a burgeoning following. A large number of translation rights have now been sold for the Inspector Singh franchise, including, most recently, 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 in 2011. “Getting Inspector Singh into the US this year was a big breakthrough,” Flint says, large brown eyes shining as if she can’t believe this has actually come about.
The franchise is selling particularly well in India and Australia, and, as Flint puts it, “other natural Commonwealth markets for English-language books.”
As for Singh’s own thoughts on why she’s succeeded so well with Inspector Singh: “I think what Singh has, which is unusual is the contemporary setting. So much fiction set in Asia is from way back when, you know, colonial, the Raj, the Second World War, the Japanese Occupation, the 1970s. But ordinary people live in the present. Readers can connect with this time more than with any other.”
The next Inspector Singh mystery is set in Cambodia and will hit bookstores in April 2011. 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. If I do finish it—and sometimes I do have my doubts—it will be way over the traditional Inspector Singh word count. I’m going to have to edit it down soon, come what may.”
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, 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, she says: “I can’t wait till I write a crime novel that’s really rubbish and get away with it, because that means I’ve truly made it.” Words said half-in-jest by the writer who has delivered the first world-famous fictional sleuth from Southeast Asia, a man of subcontinental colour and a deceptively shambolic demeanour.
NICK WALKER is the author of Living Landscapes, Vistas of the Dragon and Sand & Light: Elements of Islamic Architecture. He lives in Singapore.
Reproduced from the April-June 2011 issue of Quill magazine