Book review: Ruth Rendell — Portobello

Book 13 for 2010.

The scene is the Portobello Road in London, home to a sprawling market and to people from all walks of life, the wealthy middle class and those with no hope of a job. A middle-aged antiques dealer finds some cash dropped in the street, and rather than hand it to the police, advertises locally for the owner. Half a dozen lives cross and are entangled as a result, some knowing and some unknowing; setting them all on a path that will change some forever, and leave others dead.

Rendall starts with stock stereotypes, and then draws their lives in intimate detail, showing them as rounded characters with a mix of good and bad in their personalities. This is a psychological thriller, but it’s about ordinary people living ordinary lives; and how everyday pressures and events can lead into, and out of, tragedy. It has a mostly happy ending, and even the dead get some justice in the end, but these things depend on the small coincidences of ordinary life.

There’s a very strong sense of place in the book, excellent characterisation, and an engaging story. My own reaction to it was that I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I read it — but I have no desire to read it again, and no urge to go out and buy more by the same author. I’m not quite sure why this is so, as the book certainly doesn’t rely on the shock value of seeing the events unfold for the first time.

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Book Review: Shamini Flint — Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Mystery

A maverick senior police officer follows his instincts to solve a crime, in spite of interference from above. It’s a stock pattern in the mystery genre, but this has one or two interesting twists. For this inspector is a Sikh in the Singapore police force, and the politics he has to negotiate include the somewhat strained relationship between Singapore and Malaysia.

A famed Singapore model has been arrested for the murder of her Malaysian logging industry tycoon husband. The couple have been resident in Malaysia for two decades, and there’s an obvious motive in a messy divorce case, but perhaps the local police have been a little too grateful for a nice obvious motive. The Singapore public want their own police involved, and the Singapore government is willing to insist that there be cross-border co-operation in looking after its citizen’s rights. Inspector Singh has annoyed one too many people, and to his superiors he seems like the ideal fall guy for a case where race, religion and nationalism are likely to overshadow the truth.

Singh isn’t what the Malaysian detective in charge of the case wanted, but both men recognise the political realities of their situation, and try to make the best of it. And when another suspect presents himself at the police station, Inspector Mohammad becomes rather more willing to let his young sergeant assist Singh instead of simply keeping tabs on him. As the case grows ever more convoluted and new motives appear by the bushel, all three men have their hands full…

It’s an entertaining read, and clearly written by someone who knows from the inside the cultures and issues she’s writing about. Sometimes a little too clearly, as the cultural descriptions get a bit too info-dumping in places, rather than providing a sense of place. I did wonder whether this was the writer’s choice, or an editorial decision to make sure UK and US readers had enough background to follow what was going on. But one thing I particularly liked was the way Flint shows the culture clash problems from multiple angles, rather than simply painting one side as the bad guys.

There are some other problems: I found the book structure a bit choppy in places, I don’t think it quite works in terms of the reader being able to work out whodunnit just from the clues in the text, and it gets a touch too preachy about the logging industry in places (partly because one of the villain characters feels a bit too Stock Villain to me). But Singh himself is a very likeable character, and some of the other characters are very well drawn. While this book isn’t a keeper for me, I want to read the next one in the series.

ISBN 978-0-7499-2975-6
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Book log — February 2010

Books finished in February:

7) Agatha Christie — 9:50 from Paddington (logged 3 Feb)
8) Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie — Beast Master’s Circus (reviewed 9 Feb)
9) Agatha Christie — Lord Edgware Dies (logged with brief comments 10 Feb)
10) Reginald Hill — Matlock’s System (logged with brief comments 16 Feb)
11) Agatha Christie — Murder in Mesopotamia (logged with brief comments 17 Feb)

Read a large chunk of the next book, but then too jet-lagged to finish it before the end of the month. Finished it now, but really not feeling well at the moment, and I don’t think I’m going to get the review done this weekend.