Inspector Singh Comes to Cambodia

The plot of mystery writer Shamini Flint’s latest book is eminently plausible.

A witness at the Khmer Rouge tribunal is killed hours after saying at the court hearing: “I know many things that this court would be interested to hear.” 

Sent by the Singapore police force as an Asean observer, Inspector Singh ends up running the investigation with Colonel Menhay of the Cambodian military police in charge of security in the tribunal compound where the murder took place. Their mandate: to apprehend the culprit before the crime derails the tribunal.

In the meantime, a killer is shooting, execution-style, former midlevel Khmer Rouge figures.

Scores of suspects and a few murders and attempted murders later, the story ends with an unexpected, but quite believable, twist.

Released three weeks ago by Piatkus Books in London, the book “Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree” is the fourth in the series featuring Inspector Singh, written by Ms Flint, an attorney by training who lives in Singapore. The previous adventures of the overweight Sikh inspector who seems to live for his next curry took place in Singapore, Bali and Malaysia.

Developments abound in the 310-page book, as the two police officers try to find the guilty party and deal with confessions from unlikely culprits who happen to have credible motives. And all this narrated in a crisp and straightforward style that keeps the action moving.

Cambodian characters such as Colonel Menhay and Chhean, the translator, are convincing, their personalities and behavior true to life. Most Cambodians portrayed in the book are still struggling with the Khmer Rouge legacy, as many people actually do in the country today.

However, numerous comments and observations on Cambodia are strikingly dated.

For example, after musing over fact that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap City was fraught with danger due to bandits and landmines, Inspector Singh “sought comfort from the newspaper, but the lead article was on the widespread contamination of the Cambodian countryside with landmines and unexploded ordnance,” the author writes. This might have been true in 2000, but definitely not today, as road bandits between those two cities were dealt with a decade ago and only the northwest of the country truly remains to be demined.

Even the author’s depiction of the restaurant that Inspector Singh comes to favor is more than 10 years old, since the place that once was a favorite of locals and journalists has long been taken over by tourists.

At the National Museum, Inspector Singh decides “there was no point looking for anyone to question–they wouldn’t speak English.” Maybe in the early 1990s, but hardly nowadays.

While some observations are accurate, like vendors selling insects as snacks at the central market Psar Thmei, others are either strange or wrong.

The author refers to Norodom Sihanouk as Prince Sihanouk although he regained the title of King in 1993. She also mentions several times that Cambodia is a communist country. Whatever criticism one may make regarding the country’s political system, its economic system responds to supply and demand as in market economies.

Corruption is mentioned numerous times, occasionally as part of the story– as in one instance when the Cambodian and Singaporean investigators wonder whether Cambodian police officers may have removed money from a room during a search. However, noting over and over again that luxury vehicles are the mark of corrupt government officials becomes somewhat tedious.

In spite of this, the book is a good read. The character of smoking and forever hungry Inspector Flint grows on you as he tries to solve crimes whose motives rooted into the Pot Pol era makes one wonder who is the true victim in the matter.

While the story takes place in the anteroom of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, so to speak, the book remains an entertaining mystery perfect for a quiet afternoon.

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