S'pore's Dirty Harry is back
ONE thing I've always wished, as a fan of cop dramas and police procedurals, is for more crime-fiction writers in Singapore.
But as one of the safest countries in the world, the Lion City doesn't exactly lend itself to pulp noir.
Which makes humour and children's stories writer Neil Humphreys' foray into the genre all the more surprising.
Rich Kill Poor Kill - which launched last month and hit No. 5 on Times' fiction best-seller list - is his 308-page sequel to last year's Marina Bay Sins, both starring hard-boiled Detective Inspector Stanley Low.
In this new instalment published by Marshall Cavendish Editions ($18.60 at major bookstores), an Indonesian cleaner is found dead in an alley.
Charles Chan, now a more world-weary Detective Inspector at the Major Crime Division's murder squad, seeks out Low, who has been relegated to a desk-jockey role hunting online seditionists at the Technology Crime Division, to help interview suspects.
But it isn't long before several more victims turn up, all slayed with the same weapon.
As the body count rises, Low demands the unnamed Minister of Home Improvement and Chan's boss, Deputy Director Anthony Chua, to put him on the case before the self-styled Jack The Ripper strikes again.
Meanwhile, Harold Zhang, the founder of alternative news website The Singapore Truth, smells an opportunity to milk the murders for his anti-government agenda.
Unlike Marina Bay Sins, we are introduced to the serial killer and his first victim in the opening chapter.
The perpetrator - an English expatriate who pines for his halcyon days back home and resents the superficiality of his brokerage colleagues - climbs the "food chain" of the Republic's society as he takes out "bigger" targets.
Humphreys uses this escalation of violence as a commentary on the "hierarchy of death" phenomenon - that some deaths have a greater priority to the media and, as the killer feels, law-enforcement authorities.
Even Low shares the sentiment, at one point remarking: "Some victims will always be more dead than others."
The London-born writer draws upon his experience from his Notes anthology on Singapore and its residents to bring this alternate universe - at times surreal yet familiar - to life.
An example is a scene where the murderer commiserated with two of his future victims over the $20 admission fee to Marina Bay Sands' SkyPark and the expensive drinks at the rooftop bar.
That detail on the high prices appears to be inspired by Humphreys' own encounter in Return To A Sexy Island: Notes From A New Singapore.
The therapy sessions between the bipolar Low and his psychiatrist, Tracy Lai, offer an insight into the detective's cynical worldview, but sometimes feel like they are having a debate over the novel's themes.
Also, nothing really exciting happens during these scenes, as opposed to Low's more belligerent confrontations with his superiors, bystanders and eventually the killer himself.
In Low, Humphreys has created Singapore's Dirty Harry, and the "ah beng" cop is at his foul-mouthed best as his alter-ego from his undercover days, Ah Lian the gangster.
It is a testament to the Briton's 20-year cultural osmosis that Low and the other Singaporean characters - from lowly drug dealer Dragon Boy to political rebel Zhang - spout our staccato lingua franca, Singlish, with delightful authenticity.
Like Jimmy Chew and Yue Liang, the self-help celebrity couple from Marina Bay Sins, Zhang and his Westernised wife Li Jing seem to be inspired by real-life characters.
Zhang is a Singaporean who has returned from abroad after being cuckolded by an Australian. The blogger channels his sexual frustrations through his xenophobic site and public rallies.
In one memorable blog post by Zhang, Humphreys gets the broken English that the dissident employs to appeal to his followers down pat, with missing pronouns and Chinese sentence structure.
With razor-sharp dialogue, acerbic wit and a killer ending, Rich Kill Poor Kill is another superb entry in Singapore's nascent crime-fiction genre.
It's good to have you back, Inspector Low.