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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Singapore Police Inspector Sam Tay Smokes, Keeps His Partner in the Dark and has Visions While Investigating a Bombing

By Jake Needham
Kindle edition: 666 KB
Print Length: 382 pages
Publisher: Half Penny Ltd (December 20, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English

In Jake Needham's latest mystery, The Umbrella Man, his sleuth, Inspector Sam Tay of the Singapore police, has something in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes: both smoke like chimneys. Holmes puzzled out his deductions while smoking a Meerschaum pipe; Tay, who seems to be the last smoker in Singapore, puffs on Marlboros.

That is pretty much where the resemblance ends, however. Holmes used his incredible powers of observation and his keen deductive mind to ferret out the solutions to his mysteries. A mere glance at a crime scene is enough to give him all the facts he needs to bring a a murderer, master thief or other heinous malefactor to book.

Tay, on the other hand, seems far more interested in finding spots where he can grab a cigarette than in the clues that lie behind that plastic tape cops use to mark a spot where a felony has been committed.  In this book, at least, his powers of observation go largely unobserved and his deductions seem defective.

In fact, Tay, the central figure in two of Needham's Asia-centered mysteries, should have to give back a healthy part of his paycheck every week: he seems to spend most of his time on the clock avoiding physical confrontations, dodging assignments from his superiors and lounging around his little garden smoking Marlboros.

At least, that is the impression that one gets from this, Needham's second Tay mystery. I haven't read the first Tay novel,  The Ambassador's Wife, or any of his Jack Shepherd thrillers so far, and I will be interested to see if The Umbrella Man is a deviation or Needham's norm.

Jake Needham, Creator of Inspector Tay

Basically, the story is this: terrorists bomb Singapore's biggest hotels, taking out a multi-block section of the island nation's main commercial district in a 9-11 style attack.   To his outrage and disgust, Tay, whose modest inherited wealth gives him the freedom to be a royal pain in the  ass to his superiors, is shunted aside from the main investigation of the bombing by Singapore's internal security police. Instead, he and his handful of troops are put in charge of the mysterious death of a foreigner.

With the assistance of a shadowy American spook who apparently was introduced in The Ambassador's Wife, Tay uncovers the link between the bombings and the dead foreigner.  But he works out the connection with glacial slowness, factoring in time-outs during which he is physically threatened by another U.S. covert operator, knocked out twice at inopportune moments, and given the runaround by the secret police.

And smokes Marlboros. Lots and lots of Marlboros.

The tectonic pace of the book is annoying to begin with, but it is also hampered by a plot driven by one of the most miraculous coincidences in the history of crime fiction, a coincidence so problematic that it is impossible to even mention an aspect of it without completely turning this review into a spoiler. Suffice to say that it is the sort of coincidence that seems to be at the center of every Jack Reacher book Lee Childs has ever written. What's more, this particular twist is never really adequately explained: we never learn who is behind the bombing, their motivation or how they enlisted the aid of the dead foreigner in the first place.

Even more annoying is the fact that on at least two occasions, Tay's mother confers with him and kindly points him toward critical clues. Unfortunately, his mother has been dead at least two years, so these conferences are essentially hallucinations. Having supernatural agents help an investigator would be fine if this book was advertised as a supernatural thriller, but it isn't. The Umbrella Man is presented as a straightforward mystery story and the sudden appearance of a ghost who plays a lead role in the solution smacks of an author who wrote himself into a corner and was desperate to find a way out.

With all the weaknesses, the story still would have been worth reading if it had given us a more vivid look at Singapore, a country that few Americans know anything about except that it gives long prison sentences for minor crimes and relies heavily on caning as an instrument of judicial corporal punishment.

Unfortunately, other than one or two geographical references, we learn next to nothing about the country besides the fact that Inspector Tay believes its people, a ployglot collection of Malaysians, Chinese, Indians, Southeast Asians and others, are obsessively deferential to authority and driven by a single-minded pursuit of wealth.

If a change of pace from the normal mystery is what you are looking for, The Umbrella Man may satisfy you.  But it didn't satisfy me.  Perhaps one or more of his other novels will, and if it does, I will definitely let you know about it.

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