Monday, January 07, 2013

The Problem of the Parasol

The Umbrella Man opens on Inspector Samuel Tay of the Singapore CID, having a relaxing time in his garden. And then he hears the explosions: two of them almost simultaneous, followed by the third. Singapore is under attack: three hotels (The Hilton, the Marriott, and the Grand Hyatt) have been targeted. Hundreds of people are dead, and thousands lie injured. Tay himself winds up in the hospital.

But upon awaking, Tay discovers that he is being shut out of the investigation. His superiors suggest taking a leave of absence, while Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) take over the investigation. Tay has made himself a nuisance in certain corners, and now ISD is demanding that he be shut out of the investigation. And so Tay finds himself investigating an ordinary death in some remote corner far away from the terrorist plot.

Except it’s not that simple, as you may have guessed. It turns out that the victim, a white man, may have had some sort of connection to the bombings. And so while ISD is trying to pin the blame on a terrorist organization, Sam Tay investigates his “ordinary” case and finds connections he’d never have dreamed about. And the biggest mystery is a photograph of the murder victim from years ago: he is standing by a man holding an umbrella, both of them smiling. This, of course, is the titular umbrella man.

The Umbrella Man is a fun read, but mystery fans should be warned right now that this is a thriller. Although Tay comes to some conclusions on his own, a character walks onstage, confirms Tay’s suspicions that yeah-Bob-is-the-killer-but-what-can-you-do-about-it, and promptly disappears. While it’s a well-constructed thriller, the dice are loaded against you, and if the author had really wanted to, he could have made the umbrella man anyone, maybe even the Queen of England. (How's that for a twist? Although I guess I may have ruined the novel for anyone who was placing a bet on the Queen as an outside contender for the villain's role.)

I have only one more plot niggle, and that is a literal plot fairy who descends on the story twice to move the plot forward. Every once in a while, Sam Tay talks to his mother… who’s been dead for the last few years. These scenes are genuinely funny and fun to read, but it’s a casual excursion into the supernatural. I would have liked these scenes better if there were more uncertainty about them. Here’s what I mean: if Tay already knew everything that his mother was telling him, these scenes could have been discussions with Tay’s own subconscious, in the form of his mother’s ghost, that help him make sense of the information he already knows. It would be a very interesting and unusual way for a detective to work instead of relying on the supernatural. These scenes don’t ruin the book or anything like that, but it’s a surprisingly casual approach to the supernatural. It would be the same as if I interrupted this review to bring you a message from the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler, and then resumed the review without commenting on the interruption.

That being said, those are my only real problems with The Umbrella Man. It’s actually a very good piece of fiction and I enjoyed it very much. Author Jake Needham does something refreshing: he plots. It may not be a paradigm of fair play, but it’s fun to walk along with Inspector Tay as the plot continues to twist and turn. There are several unexpected plot developments, and when I came to the end of the book I found myself wishing that there was more of it. I liked Tay’s company and the company that he keeps.

Another interesting facet of this book is the way that it portrays Singapore. In my experience, this is the great danger of books with a foreign setting: they can either fail to bring setting to life or they can bring it to life so often that you find that you’re reading a travel brochure in which someone gets murdered. Needham doesn’t fall into either of these traps. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles, Singapore is a corrupt world with an imperfect justice system, but it’s a world worth fighting for (although Tay wonders why that’s the case on many an occasion). Needham gives you a sense of place and does this vividly. I’ve never been to Singapore but Needham made me feel like I was there for a bit. Tay loves the country, but he sees some of its flaws and doesn’t hesitate to point them out.

The Umbrella Man is the second in the Inspector Tay series of novels, but it is not necessary to read the first. Although some references are made to the first novel (The Ambassador’s Wife), its plot largely remains shrouded in mystery. Overall, I recommend The Umbrella Man to anybody who wants a solid thriller. It’s plenty of fun to read, and while not perfect, it’s perfectly readable.

1 comment:

  1. You might also like Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke ( and “Bullets and Train” written by Pakistani author Adeerus Ghayan ( ) . Latter is available for free download at Amazon Kindle and looks at the matter from a purely Pakistani point of view. It is interesting how authors from two different parts of the world convey the same message that drones are fuelling terrorism.