Written by Jake Needham — In the Marriott Hotel, Singapore, a woman’s body is found, horribly mutilated. There are very obvious sexual overtones to her death. Soon, another corpse is found in the seedy Thai sex-tourism resort of Pattaya. The crime scene seems identical to the one in Singapore. Or is it?
Charged with solving the Singapore murder is Detective Samuel Tay of the Singapore police. Sam is disillusioned, misanthropic, short-tempered but persistent. Of mixed parentage, he hates the way Singapore’s quirky Chinese heritage has been homogenised into a bland and regimented sameness. While longing for the old Singapore of his youth, he mistrusts Americans and loathes fat Australian tourists in their shorts and flip-flops. He is blunt and grumpy in his dealings with those around him, and downright gauche with women.
As Sam investigates the first murder, he is quickly informed that there is an international dimension to the case. The body is that of the estranged wife of US ambassador, Art Munson. Sam soon feels crowded by the presence of Cally Parks and Tony DeSouza who are both intelligence officers attached to the American embassy in Singapore. When the Pattaya murder is brought to his attention, Sam travels to Thailand with the beautiful Ms Parks, and there they meet an old colleague of hers, the dissolute and dangerous former CIA man, John August.
There is a very strong awareness of location and atmosphere in this novel. Through the eyes of Sam Tay, the author makes a subtle but telling distinction between life in Singapore and Pattaya. Singapore is nasty, stinking, sweaty and hot, but it is a manicured nanny-state, with an overbearing sense that it is run at all levels by jobsworths, whether they be senior police officers or hotel functionaries. Pattaya is nasty, stinking, sweaty and hot, but despite it being steamy and tawdry, and existing only to service the needs of middle-aged male tourists from the West, it has a more truthful and human air to it.
The two strengths of the novel are the sense of place, and the determination of Samuel Tay. He may be nagged by self-doubt and aware of his own mortality, but he is shrewd, intelligent and perceptive. He is also immune to both threats and blandishments from his more sophisticated American colleagues. There are clichés in the book. Tay’s second-in-command, Sergeant Robbie Kang, is the archetypal number two, beloved of many crime novelists. He is the latest in a long line of foils for the main man, which have included Dr Watson, Sergeant Lewis, Mike Burden and DS Hathaway. Kang exists to get on with the job, pick up the pieces, and remain stoical in the face of his boss’s bad temper and frustration when things go wrong.
It has to be said that the bad guys are flagged up fairly early in the piece, and despite a minor twist in the final denouement, seasoned crime fiction readers will recognise which distinguished signals are to be ignored, and which are to be obeyed. This said, The Ambassador’s Wife is a well constructed novel with a thoroughly likeable main character who operates in a vividly described and authentic mileu.
Marshall Cavendish/Half Penny
CFL Rating: 3 Stars