"Always remember, it's a trick. Keep that in mind and you can figure out how it's done."- Lt. Columbo (Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, 1989)
Stephen Leather is a former journalist from the United Kingdom, who used to write for The Times and The South China Morning Post, before he became a full-time crime novelist and saw his thrillers translated in a dozen languages – which makes it safe to say that his career switch was a success. However, what caught my attention were not his contemporary crime novels, but a series of classically-styled short stories about Inspector Zhang of the Singapore Police Force.
I don't remember who recommended the Inspector Zhang stories, but remember they were described as a spirited homage to the locked room mystery and the great detective stories of yore. So, of course, they found their way onto my TBR-pile!
Leather penned this series during the early years of this decade, between 2011 and 2013, which were then collected a year later as The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang (2014). All of the stories are impossible, or semi-impossible, crime stories that are, mostly, set in "squeaky-clean Singapore." But the main attraction of this collection is the titular police-inspector.
Inspector Zhang is best described as a kindred spirit of ours. A policeman who loves detective stories, in particular locked room mysteries, but crimes of a seemingly impossible nature seldom occur outside of the printed page and rarely on the island state of Singapore – as it boosts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. So, whenever a criminal situation shows some inexplicable peculiarities, Zhang takes the opportunity to give a Carrian locked room lecture or litter his speech with references to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen. The good inspector also revealed he learned Japanese for the sole purpose of being able to read the work of Soji Shimada.
So, the character of Inspector Zhang is both incredible fun and interesting: a policeman who operates in one of the cleanest, safest and low-crime areas on the face of this planet, but with a soul yearning for the kind of problems that faced Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. This makes them especially fun stories for the reader who's as big a fanboy as the inspector.
I better stop this bloated introduction here and start taking a look at each of the eight stories in this collection, because my reviews of short story collections have the tendency to expand to the size of Nero Wolfe's waistline.
The first one of the lot, "Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish," confronts the duo of Inspector Zhang and Sergeant Lee with the murder of an American distributor of plastic products, Peter Wilkinson, who was found in a five-star VIP hotel room with a stab wound to the throat. However, the windows were secured from within and the only door opened on a corridor that is constantly monitored by CCTV, which showed the victim was completely alone and this makes the murder look like a seemingly impossible one – much to the excitement of Zhang. As he confessed to Sgt. Lee, he has been waiting his whole life for an actual impossible murder and uses the situation to give an impromptu dissertation on all of the tricks mentioned by Dr. Gideon Fell in his famous Locked Room Lecture from John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935). Granted, this is used to pad out the story and makes the routine solution, which is a slight variation on an old trick, slightly disappointing, but Zhang's contagious enthusiasm made this a passable effort.
In the second story, "Inspector Zhang and the Falling Woman," Zhang has taken his wife to a restaurant to celebrate thirty years of marriage, but the ending of the evening is spoiled when they came across the prelude of a drama: a young woman was standing on the roof of a twelve-story apartment building and threatened to jump. She acts upon her threat and jumps to an ugly mess on the pavement below, but this routine case of suicide takes a strange twist when the medical examiner takes a closer look at the body. The woman who apparently jumped to her death was drowned!
However, the method was actually not too difficult to figure out and really the only answer that made logically sense, which (for your information) had nothing to do with the medical examiner. I know what some of you were thinking, but that's not the answer. What really was the highlight of this story was not the plot, but Zhang's imitation of Columbo, when he waltzed into the apartment of one of the suspects, speaking irrelevances about "my wife" and even saying "just one more thing." Loved it!
The third story, "Inspector Zhang and the Dead Thai Gangster," finally shows a clever and even an original impossible situation. One that takes place aboard a Boeing 777-200. Zhang and Lee are flying to Thailand, "to collect a Singaporean businessman who was being extradited on fraud charges," but upon landing the inspector is summoned by the captain: a passenger has been found dead in the sparsely occupied business class and the body has a bullet hole in the chest with gunshot residue on his shirt. The shot was fired at close range, but that seemed, under the circumstances, as impossible as getting a gun aboard and then making it vanish again – which is, nonetheless, what appears to have happened. But that's not the only problem facing the inspector.
The name of the victim is Kwanchai Srisai, "a well-known gangster" with "political aspirations," who has been target of several murder attempts before. Zhang contacted his superiors over the telephone, who contacted the Royal Thai Police, and they want him to take a crack at the case and sort out the mess before taking over the case, which means they prefer to come aboard to take the killer into custody rather than taking over the investigation. And, while not every piece of information was fairly shared with the reader, the explanation for the impossible situation was still pretty clever and somewhat innovative. I liked how it came about.
Next in line is "Inspector Zhang and the Perfect Alibi" and the plot shows the inspector is acquiring a reputation, up and down the ranks of the police force, as someone with an uncanny knack for getting "to the heart of seemingly impossible situations." The Deputy Commissioner is stuck with what appeared to be a simple case, which turned into an impossible one, that has the potential of turning the entire police department into a laughing stock. A woman had been murdered in her home, throat cut, but there were clear signs of burglary and there were cast-iron, tale-tell clues pointing towards a known burglar – fingerprints on the murder weapon and a bite-mark on victim. However, the suspect was in custody at the time of the murder. So either the suspect managed to slip from his sealed and guarded prison cell or their forensic scientists made a mistake. Both answers are bad for the police.
A good and intriguing premise, but very simple to solve and you should be able to stumble to the correct answer by the halfway mark. By the way, I did learn something from this story: caning is a legal and perfectly normal punishment in Singapore. It can be given for a wide variety of crimes and offenses. The video I found of a caning looked very, very painful, but makes you almost understand why they have clean streets and a chronic lack of petty criminals.
The fifth story, "Inspector Zhang and the Hotel Guest," is the shortest entry in this collection and is fairly simple, non-impossible problem. A man was found in one of the hotel rooms, booked in the name of a Russian woman, but the man has a bump on the back of his head and no memory of who he is. So the inspector has to make a series of Sherlockian-style deductions based on the man's appearance and study the CCTV footage in order to ferret out the answer to this little conundrum. A short, simple, but passable, story.
There's an original locked room problem at the heart of the next story, "Inspector Zhang and the Disappearing Drugs," which begins with the Senior Assistant Commissioner summoning Zhang to his office in connection with a case of "a highly confidential nature." A sensitive case that requires the mind of "an expert in the field" of seemingly impossible crimes.
A team of Customs officers accidentally came a consignment of drugs, a hundred kilos of Burmese heroine in ten cardboard boxes, which gave the Drug Squad an opportunity to setup a trap by following "the boxes of drugs to the customer who had paid for them" - effectively rolling up the Singapore end of the operation. Well, that didn't happen. The boxes were delivered to a shabby apartment on the eighth floor of a building and were left behind there, but the address was known known to the police. So they made their preparations: CCTV cameras were installed in the hallway and the apartment was under constant police observation, but the boxes were never retrieved from the apartment.
After a week passed, they called off the operation and the police-detective in charge was given to order to enter the apartment in order to retrieve the heroine. But that's when they made a startling discovery: the apartment was empty and the boxes, alongside the drugs, had vanished into thin air!
Zhang is great form and figures out both the method and the culprit based on the CCTV footage and the pesky security on the reinforced front-door of the apartment, which offers the reader with the same opportunity. And that makes this one of the better and most rewarding stories from this collection.
The penultimate story in the collection, "Inspector Zhang Goes to Harrogate," is a fun one. Zhang's wife arranged a holiday to England for his birthday and the main attraction of this present is attending a mystery writers' conference, where he meets a hated writer and publisher, Sean Hyde, who sold over a million ebooks by selling them "for less than the price of a cup of coffee" - which is resented by a lot of people. They claim Hyde is "devaluing books" by selling them so cheaply, but he merely suggested agents and publishers needed to adept to a changing market. Or that some of his vocal colleagues should supply better written books at the right price, because badly written, over priced schlock was doomed to fail. So this made him not the most popular speaker at the conference.
But the situation takes a dramatic turn when Hyde's body is found in his hotel room, hanging from the bathroom door, in what appears to be a suicide: a maid was outside in the corridor outside and saw nobody leaving the room after hearing a thud. So nobody was present when he apparently hung himself. However, this is, technically speaking, not a locked room, because the door was not locked from the inside and the bathroom window was open. It's one of those alibi breaking stories that strongly reminded me of one or two similar tales from Case Closed (e.g. Vol. 57), but it's a fun one, which is strengthened by the setting and the background that delved into ebook publishing. An area not yet widely explored by mystery writers. So this story may very well be an original in that regard.
Finally, there's "Inspector Zhang and the Island of the Dead," which sounds very grim and promising, but the setting, Sentosa Island, is a popular resort that was associated in a dark and distant past with piracy. However, that has very little to do with the story at hand. A domestic affair dressed up as a botched burglary: Dr. Samuel Kwan was found stabbed to death in his study by his wife and Dr. Mayang. They heard a scream emanating from the study, but the door was locked and they had to go round the house to discover that one of the windows of the backdoor had been broken. But this apparently botched burglary turns into another alibi breaking story when Zhang learns the house was a divided one with a divorce in process.
So, not a bad story, but I expected something better from both the title and the last story in this collection, which really should have had a (strong) impossible crime.
In any case, I genuinely enjoyed The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang, which may not have always been perfect or played entirely fair, but, as a whole, the book offers a great band of tribute stories to the locked room mystery and the classic detective story – exemplified in the character of Zhang. His presence and enthusiastic love for detective stories made even the weaker stories fun to read. Hopefully, this is not the last time we got to see him take charge of a curious case involving locked room murders, baffling disappearances that appear to be completely impossible or destroying a cast-iron alibi of a guilty person. All the while he's happily chattering away about Carr, Christie and Doyle.