Singapore has a thriving literary scene, even if it is still largely unknown outside of Asia. In recent years, the crime fiction scene has exploded, with plenty of gems that really set Singapore aside from other countries in the literary stakes. Comparing Singapore with its other South East Asian neighbours like Thailand and Indonesia, crime is largely set to a backdrop of searing heat, oppressive humidity and ancient feuds that end in a bloodbath. Singapore in fact specialises in rather bizarre but ultimately unoffensive stories of crime that are reminiscent of Murakami’s strange, looping tales of missing persons and chance encounters that fit into a backdrop of illogical events. So perhaps Singapore is not quite Scandinavian noir but it does have it’s own appeal.
So who are some of the best authors to look out for? One crime writer who is extremely popular in Singapore is Jake Needham. His novels based on Inspector Samuel Tay are all set in Singapore and offer the right amount of pace for those of us who prefer not to be pushed along in a storyline, but rather shoved. Some of his best-known books are The Ambassador’s Wife, The Umbrella Man, and The Girl In The Window. All of these deal with the threat of Islamic extremism, bombs planted in the city and murders ordered by high-profile terrorists. The Dead American tackles the murder of an ex-pat and it is by this, the second book in the Tay series, that we begin to become familiar with his character. Overweight, grumpy, a chain-smoker, he hardly appears to be the ideal crime fighter on paper. However, by the time you have gotten halfway through this series, you can see just how much of a fighter he really is, and just how dedicated to catching the bad guys. Speaking of which, in Needham’s Singapore, there are plenty. He accurately describes the kind of luxury and wealth that the city is famous for, but also exposes a fat underbelly that is prickled with thorns, simultaneously feeding the leeches of the criminal underworld and protecting them from the net of the police.
If you want to explore more than just one author, then the Crime Scene: Singapore collection has managed to bring together some of the best names in fiction from the city. Stephen Leather is one to watch, who frequently features plenty of locations all over South East Asia. Dawn Farnham who is most adept at describing 19th century Singapore, steaming under a laden cloud of opium fumes, is also one to look out for. The collection is also a great introduction to some local writing talent that you might otherwise pass over.
For those who are more comfortable with the Miss Marple style, then Shamini Flint is an author that is worth checking out. The Inspector Singh Investigates series is her most popular, featuring a rather portly Sikh detective who becomes embroiled in some high japes around India, Malaysia and China. In a similar vein is the work of Nury Vittachi with the Feng Shui Detective novels. The amiable CF Wong is a pillar of the crime-comedy stakes and there are enough touches of philosophy, culture and more than a hint of Sherlock Holmes to make it worth reading.
If your interest lies more in colonial Singapore, then the Indonesian-based writer William L. Gibson is the author of Detective Hawksworth trilogy. Set in turn of the century Singapore, the city is on the brink of revolt and it’s slums are threatening to overspill into the lush enclaves of the rich. The books also transgress into Malaysia and provide a fascinating insight into the world of intrigue and murder against a backdrop of colonialism. Again, if you are looking for something gory, then perhaps you might finish feeling a little disappointed.
Much like Singapore itself, which is famously free of crime, corruption and vice, many crime writers reflect this in their novels. However, in most novels, you can clearly see the many facets which make Singapore so rich, including kampungs, ethnic minorities, food and high-rise housing. It may be crime-lite but that does not mean that it has nothing to offer the avid reader.