Monday, May 25, 2009

The Only Living Boy

To the Lloyd's Hotel, downtown Chorlton for a book launch by my friend and former colleague Robert Graham. His new collection of short stories, The Only Living Boy, was the main event, and a goodly crowd enjoyed his witty and self-deprecating chat, and his sensitive readings.
I was moved to write a review on Amazon:
This collection of stories, written over the last quarter-century, showcases Graham's talent for the fine detail and the telling turn of phrase. Many of the stories are set in (to me at any rate) very familiar locations, and one of the strengths of these stories is the sense they exude of being grounded in the real lives of the believable people who inhabit them. That's not to say that whimsy doesn't have its place here- one story in particular, "Playing Gershwin" has that almost magic realist quality one finds in, for example, Paul Auster.
What strikes me most about these stories is their wit, not just in the sense that they are often witty, and funny, but in the old - fashioned sense of the word: they display a high degree of verbal dexterity. There's no room in the short story for the wasted word, and Graham wastes none.
If you want to be entertained, amused, intrigued, and occasionally challenged to reflect on life's iniquities, this volume will suit you well. Here's an author at the top of his game.

Inspector Singh Investigates

I am immersing myself in things Malaysian at the moment, in preparation for the forthcoming Burgess conference in Kuala Lumpur. That's one of the reasons I've changed my banner to a picture taken last year in Kuala Kangsar. So I was intrigued by this book: it must be the only English language detective story set in KL, I imagine. The detective is Inspector Singh, a Sikh seconded to Malaysia from Singapore in order to investigate the killing of a leading businessman, apparently by his estranged former model wife. My heart sank when Singh was described as a maverick in the opening pages (do fictional police forces contain any non-mavericks?) but the story soon picked up, and engaged me enough for me to finish it in two days. The author, Shamini Flint, is a former lawyer and also an environmental activist, so it's no surprise that aspects of Sharia law and a subplot concerning illegal logging are integral to this novel.
The picture of KL that emerges is one that will be familiar to those who have been there- certainly, the bustle, the grime, the contrasts, the traffic were all elements I noticed on my visit, and are all evoked well here. My one criticism of Shamini's use of local colour is that she usually feels obliged to explain quirks of behaviour, or cuisine, as if she doesn't quite trust her reader to accept her knowledge. I wondered if it was the heavy hand of an editor with an eye on the anglophone market.
Singh, whose character maybe owes something to HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote, keeps one step ahead of his Malaysian colleagues in a murky tale of corruption, bluff and passion. I enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the projected series, to be set in Bali.
Shamini Flint is obviously very much a genre writer, and there's nothing wrong with that- but the burgeoning Malaysian literary scene contains some seriously impressive writers, and I will be turning to them in a future post. Meanwhile, this is a promising beginning, and Singh is a distinctive addition to the crowded detective story marketplace.