Well-settled around the world, the Indian diaspora has a lively literary tradition but this is somewhat deficient in their depiction of people in a work setting. Overseas Indians write about themselves, but a fictional character in a public role – law enforcement, for example – in the increasingly multi-ethnic societies they inhabit is a rare exception.
NYPD’s Lieutenant Raghavan appears in Matt Rees’ “The Fourth Assassin” – of the Omar Yussef series – but doesn’t even have a speaking part in her two scenes. The first ethnic Indian policeman to be a principal protagonist is Inspector Singh (we never learn his first name) of the Singapore police force, courtesy Shamini Flint.
The portly – oh well, overweight – dishevelled Sikh, quite fond of beer and curry, is not a prepossessing figure but has an excellent crime-solving record. Unfortunately (for his superiors), he also has a tendency to unearth some unsavoury aspects and is sent around Asia to handle tricky cases.
The brainchild of corporate lawyer-turned-author Flint, a Singapore-based Malaysian of Indian/Sri Lankan origin, Singh is a conscientious policeman whose “nonconformist character allows him to confront the conservative forces within Asian society”.
In an e-mail chat, Flint said she was “keen to have a policeman who was ethnically Indian in order to be able to tap my own family experience when it came to developing his character”.
“All I have to do,” she added, “is attend a family wedding and my relatives give me enough dialogue to fill three books.”
A Sikh was picked because she “wanted someone physically distinct, and the turban was a good place to start”. Also, given the accounts, post 9/11, about how Sikhs living in the West have often been mistaken for Muslims and subjected to physical and racial abuse, she thought this was “an interesting present-day twist to being a Sikh”.
The first in the currently six-volume series – all prefixed “Inspector Singh Investigates” – is “A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder” (2009), where he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to “liaise” in the investigation into the murder of a businessman whose widow, and prime suspect, is a Singaporean citizen. She is also well-known model, meaning the case figures in the tabloids and public consciousness.
Right at the airport, Singh shows his nature – separating two fighting businessmen at the first class check-in and putting them in place by getting 10 economy class passengers ahead of them. However, his work in Malaysia is not easy; adding to a complex case are the political, cultural and religious tensions that he has to negotiate. Justice is somehow ensured, with the aid of a sympathetic Malaysian police sergeant.
In “A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul” (2009), he is dispatched to the idyllic Indonesian island in the wake of a terror bombing, despite protests that he is unsuitable. However, when one of the victims is found to have been murdered prior to the blast, Singh digs in with an Australian policewoman’s aid and, in solving the case, manages to spike a further terror plot.
“The Singapore School of Villainy” (2010) sees Singh at home – hectored by his superiors who constantly label him a disgrace to the force and nagged by his wife. But when an international law firm’s senior partner is found murdered in his office, and there is no shortage of suspects, it is Singh who is entrusted the case that threatens to expose Singaporean society’s dark side.
“A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree” (2011) sees the inspector seconded to observe a war crimes trial. But when a tribunal member is murdered, Singh plunges into a terrifying investigation whose roots lie in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge era.
“A Curious Indian Cadaver” (2012) sees him in Mumbai for a family wedding but when the bride runs away and a corpse is found, Singh is prevailed upon by his wife to absolve her family. But he faces unending deceit, stretching to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Then comes “A Calamitous Chinese Killing” (2013), which takes Singh to Beijing, where a Singaporean diplomat’s son is found murdered. Most unwilling to get involved, he faces a tough time as he confronts the darker side of the Chinese miracle.
Despite the somewhat humorous character, the books deal with some pretty dark issues, but Flint contends that is inevitable. “I don’t think it is possible to write about Asian politics, law and culture without recognising the dark side to our society often papered over with economic success stories.”
The next stop for Singh is England, with Flint “looking forward to taking my Asian sleuth to the home of crime fiction”.
As much as a product of his environment like his cold and bleak Nordic counterparts, Singh is a creature of the tropics – hot under the collar and sweaty under the armpits – but as tenacious a policeman, and, in the process, a mirror of the faultlines in Asian society.