The Ambassador’s Wife , a Jake Needham novel set in Singapore, and partly in Thailand – to appease his fans of his novels set in that country like The Big Mango, The Laundry Man, Killing Plato and A World of Trouble – is setting new bench marks in the crime genre set in Asia.
As Jake explains, in his Letters From Asia, of the main character, Inspector Samual Tay, and it’s locations:
“I honestly had no idea how my readers would react to a book about a Singaporean policeman that was, of course, set largely in Singapore. Just to hedge my bets a little, I let Inspector Tay pursue his investigation to Pattaya and Bangkok in one section of the book. I didn’t want my readers to be completely lost. And I wasn’t sure that many of them really gave much of a damn about Singapore.”
The novel takes a while to speed up. But when Jake decides to put the book in turbo mode, after meticulously setting up the scene, there are kangaroos and deers stunned by the bright head-lights as Jake drives his book into dark territory of spooks and invisible hands. And Inspector Tay, who can hold his own against the CIA, the Ambassador, and other forces tugging him into the abyss, can hold his own.
We are rooting for Inspector Samuel Tay, a Singaporean with an American bent. He hates Americans, and to be fair, he doesn’t think much of Australians either, with their ‘creased t-shirts”. That’s Tay. He’s happy in book shops, and taking guilty drags of his Marlboro Red. In the book, Jake paints a quaint picture of Tay:
“Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore CID has always been something of a reluctant policeman. He is a little overweight, a little cranky, a little lonely, and he smokes way too much. Thinking back, he can’t even remember why he became a police detective in the first place. All he really knows is that he is very, very good at it.”
Tay is set up as the underdog. But Jake has made sure that we love this eccentric, who seems to attract hot career women, including the lady who does the autopsy on the Ambassador’s wife, and a very rich and beautiful socialite who Tay will use to get the local gossip on the victim.
If it’s sight seeing you want, Jake gives us great travel writing embedded in the novel:
Asia Light, some people called it. It always made him think of a gigantic movie set someone had built to represent a generic city. He had heard a lot of American television shows were actually filmed in Toronto because Toronto looked like everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Singapore was exactly like that. Everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Even Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer could take a leaf out of Jake’s penetrating observation and great travel writing. But weaved into this are plots and subplots is a case unfolding of the murder of an Ambassador’s wife. Who said you couldn’t incorporate travel and crime together? Jake certainly didn’t!
Tay calls up an old flame, and socialite to find out any back ground information on her. The Ambassador’s wife is portrayed as a bubbly dumb blonde, who is also into women. But that is only a lead. The real motive for her death is soon revealed.
Found in the Marriott hotel, with a flash light up her reproducing parts, with a mauled face, a CIA agent who visits Tay suspects it’s terrorism, and deters the Inspector from following it up. This is where the tension starts to build.
The Ambassador is an aspiring career man, whose estranged but now dead wife isn’t’ what she appears to be. There’s no grief on his part. He is on a war path. If Inspector Tay thinks he wants to take over the case, then he’s in for a hell of surprise.
Will Inspector Tay, the introspective, book reading, and aspiring cyclist – yes he bought a bike, on a recommendation of a girlfriend, but the time he decides to get some exercise one Sunday morning, he’s visited by a CIA agent – solve the case? Will he rise against the behemoth of the CIA and other terrorist elements from Southern Thailand, to solve this case? And just who is the Ambassador’s wife?
It’s sequel, The Umbrella Man, is due out in November. Singapore is scorched with a string of bombings. The sequel, explains Jake, is a request from readers who have demanded him to write the follow up. Singapore may just be the right environment for great detective novels. But I’d personally love to see one set in Indonesia, where I think Needham would rise to the challenge with local color, humor, and intrigue – his key signature.