Māwake Crime Review: Bringing you superb crime writing from around the world

Kia ora and haere mai; hello and welcome to this first edition of Māwake Crime Review, a new initiative here at Crimespree Magazine. Each issue I’ll be featuring some great crime writers and crime novels from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. Why? Because the mystery world is a big and broad place, and there are superb stories being told all over the map.

Māwake is a word from the Māori language (the indigenous people of my home country, New Zealand) which translates to ‘south-east sea breeze’.

In this column we’ll be harnessing that breeze: highlighting terrific tales ‘blown in’ for crime-loving readers from the southern and eastern continents: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific).

There’s plenty for us to highlight, from compelling award-winners and budding superstars of the genre to classic tales translated into English for the first time.

One of the things I love about reading is the way good stories drop us into all sorts of different settings. We can experience intrigue, thrills, and a huge range of emotions by riding with the characters, and stepping into somewhere else.

I hope over the course of this series I’ll encourage you to try some new authors you may not have heard of, to step into new places alongside new characters.

Each edition of Māwake Crime Review will include an interview with one or two crime writers, and reviews of three or four books. Future columns may be themed in various ways, or focused on a particular region, but for this introductory installment I’m sharing the love, covering all four continents.

Since this is something new, I’d love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Feel free to email the Crimespree editors or get in touch and heckle me on Twitter.

But for now, let’s kick things off with Shamini Flint, a Singapore-based author who was an attorney with top international firms before giving that up to write bestselling children’s books and a crime series starring a portly Sikh detective.

Shamini Flint

BRIGHT COVERS AND DARK DEEDS:
SHAMINI FLINT AND HER INSPECTOR SINGH SERIES

Craig Sisterson: What drew you to crime and inspired you to write your first murder mystery, after being a corporate lawyer then stay-at-home mother and children’s author?

Shamini Flint: The sad truth is that very little of my writing career has been planned. At the time I began to write crime, my children’s books had had some success and my own kids were toddlers. It struck me one morning as I set out for a long day of school visits to young children after a sleepless night dealing with mine, that I was an adult with adult interests and a wide range of adult qualifications and it seemed ridiculous that my life now revolved entirely around children. As an added irony, I had actually started writing to escape my self-imposed but unsuccessful stint as a stay-at-home mum. So I made a list of things I liked/was good at/hoped to be good at/cared about and the solution to my woes seemed to be to branch out into adult novels, specifically crime fiction. I had always read crime. I was a lawyer by training so thought that I might be privy to some insights and I’ve always admired the way that good crime writing deals with many contemporary social issues with a light but enlightening touch. The final impetus was the reality that most Asian writers are expected to limit themselves to writing historical, exotic work and I had no interest in one of those tales of Asian women bound by fate to live miserable lives. So – it had to be crime!

CS: When did you realize Inspector Singh, an overweight, chain-smoking Sikh detective whose bosses like to send him abroad, was going to be a series character? What makes him so interesting for you as a writer?

SF: It was only after writing the first book (but before finding a publisher), when I was contemplating a second to hone my art, pass some time, and have another stab at avoiding young children that it crossed my mind to give Inspector Singh another run out. Why Singh? Honestly, I just liked the guy. He reminds me of my irascible uncles, my father, an old boss whom I profoundly admired. Further, his conservative yet unusual appearance (short, turban-wearing, hirsute) acts as a counterpoint to his willingness to break the rules in pursuit of justice. I suppose, deep down, I was looking for a hero. As my interests in politics and law and society extend beyond a single jurisdiction, I had to send Singh traipsing around Asia, stumbling upon good beer, hot curries, and a series of corpses.

CS: What do you most enjoy about writing the Inspector Singh books?

SF: The research! I love studying up on a country – I am basically a swot – and then visiting in person. I don’t mind having bad experiences, whether with the food or the airports or the trip more generally, because I know they will fit neatly into a book. I observe with a keener eye and stroll down dark alleys more than I might as a tourist. I also like the process of exploring issues I care about, whether the court systems in Malaysia, the laws about homosexuality in Singapore, or the Killing Fields in Cambodia. It forces me to examine my opinions and narrate them in a way palatable to a reader. That’s the hope anyway. Also, having decided early in the books that Singh likes his beer and curry, I make it a point to hunt down both in whichever country I find myself. Thank goodness, I didn’t make a lactose intolerant vegan or something like that! The series would have ended some time back.

CS: Each book in your Inspector Singh series is set in a different country. How do you decide where you’ll set each book? What other countries would you like to explore in future Singh books, and why?

SF: The earlier Singh novels were focused on countries that I knew well and cared about. Having grow up in Malaysia and worked for years in Singapore, there was plenty that upset me, annoyed me, and was grist to the writing mill. Later, it was a more accidental process. I would read a newspaper or watch television and something would trigger my interest. As an example, the Cambodia book came out of the setting up of the war crimes tribunals in that country (finally). I realised how little I knew about the history of the place beyond the basic facts as education systems within Southeast Asia prefer to avoid the subject. It seemed like a good idea to educate myself and as many other people as possible at the same time. The Singh book set in China was inspired by the tale of the neo-Maoist, his wife, and the British businessman who was murdered that was in the press around the time I was contemplating what next to write. Going forward? So many countries, so much injustice … where to begin? I am attracted to the idea of covering Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s fall from grace in the context of the Rohingya. I am suspiciously curious about life in North Korea (How are murders solved there? Or do they ‘not’ occur at all?) Thailand’s military coup piques my curiosity. My main problem right now is picking one!

CS: Your books have bright covers, a portly detective who verges on the comic at times, and plenty of humor salted in, but at the same time you delve into some really dark and serious issues, and your tales never feel ‘breezy’. How important is it to you as an author to balance light and dark? 

SF: My books combine some very dark subjects with sporadic leavening humor. This can be rather difficult. As I said to my publisher when she complained that the first draft of my Cambodia-set Singh wasn’t ‘funny’ enough, there are limits to the comedy that can be mined from genocide. As such, the light touch in the books is not about the actual subject matter but focuses on the person of Singh and the nuggets of comedy that can be found in any social encounter between a surly stranger and the people he meets on his travels. I, personally, take the world so seriously and find it so bleak that the only way I keep my sanity in real life is to see the funny side in the absurdity of the human condition. I wouldn’t say that I plan to incorporate it into books in detail, but my natural ‘voice’ is to use humor as a defense and a foil and that seeps into the books as part of the creative process. I’d like readers of my work to enjoy, learn, change, and fight, not necessarily in that order. I won’t achieve that if we’re all weeping in our teacups.

CS: Are you working on an eighth Inspector Singh novel, and if so are you able to tell us anything about it?

SF: I am currently, and this is very exciting, writing the screenplay for Inspector Singh in conjunction with a production company with a view to eventually, hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed, getting the corpulent copper to strut his stuff across our television screens.

Reviews


AFRICA

MIXED BLOOD by Roger Smith (Picador, 2009)
If you’re a fan of crime legends like Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson, and open to the idea that brutality can be written beautifully, then you should give South African author Roger Smith a try. There’s a raw forcefulness to the Cape Town writer’s tales that’s disturbing, fascinating, and compelling.

Smith has written eight thrillers, but it’s worth going back to this award-winning debut. In MIXED BLOOD, Jack Burn is a reluctant bank robber on the run and hiding out in Cape Town after a US heist ended with $3 million missing and one cop dead. Burn just wants to protect and provide for his pregnant wife and young son. His peace is shattered when his family is the victim of a violent, random attack. At a nearby building site, Benny Mongrel is an ex-con night guard who knows the men who went into Burn’s house, but stays quiet about what happened because he wants to escape his own past. The stakes are raised by a corrupt Afrikaner cop unafraid to kill, while a fastidious Zulu detective wants to settle an old score. Threads entangle the four men as millions of dollars, and lives, are put in the line among murder and vengeance.

Smith’s crime debut is a violent yet engaging thriller, full of twists and packed with memorable characters who leap off the page. He brings the economic disparity of Cape Town (rich suburbs and crime-riddled slums) to stark light, while peppering his tale with insights into a country wrestling with a dark past.

LATIN AMERICA

TEQUILA BLUE by Rolo Diez, tr Nick Caistor (Bitter Lemon, 2005)
This searing tale of a deeply flawed man trying to do some good within a corrupt system clocks in at less than 200 pages, but packs a huge wallop. A word of warning: it’s what I’d call a ‘marmite book’, in that it’ll divide readers into love or hate camps. It’s certainly not boring or run-of-the-mill.

Carlito Hernandez is a complicated man with a complicated life. He’s an underpaid detective in Mexico City, battling criminals while trying to earn enough to allow him to do his job, and support the kids he has with both his wife and mistress. Like many colleagues, he has personal and professional ‘side action’: protection rackets and arms dealing helps pay his bills. Carlito’s both deeply loving and rather selfish. Fighting crime and committing it. He has a sense of honor, while doing dishonourable things to find justice – or pleasure.

When the body of a ‘gringo’ is discovered in a hotel room, it creates lots of new headaches for Carlito. His maverick pursuit of the murderer pulls him into a maze of pornography, gang wars, and corruption among the country’s elite.

For me, TEQUILA BLUE clicked. I thought it was brilliant, scathing and satirical – like author Diez (an Argentinean native imprisoned decades ago by its military junta, who now lives in Mexico City) had a knowing wink and sly grin on his face as he was writing. Others may roll their eyes at over-the-top machismo.

Diez delivers electric prose, with a biting social conscience beneath a grimy veneer of sex, drugs, and violence. Marmite, but magnificent.

OCEANIA

RESURRECTION BAY by Emma Viskic (Pushkin Vertigo, 2018)
‘Deaf Man Investigates Friend’s Death’ would be the Hollywood tagline, but this award-hoarding and highly original Australian crime debut is about much more than its main character Caleb Zelic’s deafness. Caleb is stubborn, but an intelligent observer, who reads other people’s body language and perceives nuance others miss. But he also misses things himself. When a good friend is found dead, Caleb teams up with Frankie, a tough female ex-cop, to hunt for the mysterious ‘Scott’, the last word ever sent to him by his dead friend.

RESURRECTION BAY scooped five different book awards in Australia a couple of years ago, and now northern hemisphere readers have a chance to judge it for themselves. There is a heck of a lot to like, for aficionados and casual readers.

Viskic does a great job bringing her entire cast to vivid and authentic life, along with the Melbourne setting – both the city and the rural and small-town areas surrounding it. She captures the contemporary melting pot of Australian life.

It never feels like Viskic uses Caleb’s condition as a mere quirk to make him stand out in a crowded crime field. His deafness infuses his personality and story, affects how he sees the world and people react to him, and feels an organic part of a greater whole, rather than something done in an attempt to ‘be original’. There’s a real sense of authenticity rather than tokenism.

Powered by lean prose, this is an interesting, assured, and excellent debut.

Craig Sisterson is a former attorney who lives in London and writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, in recent years he’s interviewed more than 200 authors, chaired crime writing events on three continents, and been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), McIvanney Prize (Scotland), and Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson