If you’re looking to lift the city’s underbelly for a glimpse of what really goes on beyond the headlines of “Caning. Fines. Chewing gum” — as Tan writes in the introduction — these compelling stories are the best spot in modern literature to start.
Crisp, colourful, shocking and, well, informative, the stories traverse a murdering taxi driver, murdering sisters, a murdering son, a murdering maid, a murdering father-in-law, a murdering husband… And of course, lots of private investigators, blood and did we mention murderers?
This isn’t the prim and proper sort of detective stuff you might expect given the stories’ setting — it’s the real noir deal, written by a range of assured Singaporean writers and foreigners with an intimate knowledge of the city. Torture chambers, oral sex, ghosts and suicide all rate graphic mentions, and all with very good literary reason. Singapore the city is its creepy, shifting backdrop and its diverse society, from dirt poor to mega-rich, is the propulsion behind the storylines.
Forget the official take on Singapore: “It was a white man’s face, an Indian national’s face, a sarong party girl’s face, a new urban male’s face, a teenage punk’s face, his ex-wife’s face, her lover’s face, his former boss’s face, his representative of Parliament’s face, the pig’s face on the gate, all leering at him in unison like that goddamned ‘Smile, Singapore’ poster. He had to get rid of all those faces.”
This book is the one you want to hand to travellers who look askance when you ask whether they’re going to Singapore as part of their Southeast Asian trip; it’s for the ones who insist it’s sterile and boring. And it’s for those who know there’s more going on beneath the surface and who are desperate to know what. This book —though fiction — proves Singapore harbours complex and dangerous collisions of cultures, and entire sub-worlds of sexuality and spirituality that you won’t see when you merely skate across its surface to places more obviously sinister. As Tan writes: “No Disneyland here; but there is a death penalty.”
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