American intrigues disrupt quiet of Singapore and Seoul


THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE by Jake Needham. Hong Kong: Prime Crime Press, 2006, 349 pp., £10 (paper).
MORTAL ALLIES by Brian Haig. New York: Warner Vision Books, 2002, 580 pp., $6.99 (paper).

When a maid finds the nude corpse of a Western female in a suite in Singapore’s Marriott Hotel, all hell breaks loose.

After being fatally shot, the victim’s face was bludgeoned so severely as to render it unrecognizable. Inspector Samuel Tay, Singapore’s veteran homicide investigator, didn’t really want to view the scene of the crime; even after long years of experience, the sight of murder victims still nauseates him.

From the fingerprints, the corpse is identified as Elizabeth Munson, wife of the American Ambassador to Singapore. But then at this point, Tay’s investigation runs up against a brick wall: In the post-9/11 world, it seems, any crime against U.S. government employees or their families is automatically treated as an act of terrorism.

A bachelor and a loner, Tay is bit of a prig who discourages fellowship with his own colleagues in the police. Women — even those who send out inviting signals — find him unreceptive. One nevertheless senses that, somehow, this is a believable portrayal of a veteran homicide cop in Singapore.

As new bodies are added to the list of female victims, however, Tay becomes increasingly infuriated by the killer’s audacity and begins to take the crimes personally, which means it’s time to serve those cocksure, overbearing Yanks at the embassy a curt reminder that they’re on his turf. He manages to keep his emotions in check until he corners his suspect, and then shows how tough he can really be.

Author Jake Needham, who poses for the covers of his books holding a Thai-language tabloid newspaper and with a cigar clenched between his teeth, does not appear bent on turning out stories with lovable characters. His three previous books — “The Big Mango,” “Laundry Man” and “Killing Plato” — are set in Thailand. The Web site of Hong Kong-based Prime Crime Press ( primecrimepress.com ) notes that it does not accept direct customer orders, but advises that Needham’s books are available in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong (and on a more limited basis in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and China). Obtaining works from regional publishers has its difficulties, but for what it’s worth, my own experience has been that if a book is still in print and you want it badly enough, there’s usually a way to obtain it. More’s the point, in the case of “The Ambassador’s Wife” it’ll be well worth the effort.

Double whammy

Author Brian Haig’s pedigree is distinguished indeed. A West Point graduate, he’s the son of Gen. Alexander Haig, a former White House Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. As a Washington insider who is knowledgeable about army affairs, young Haig may be without peer. But it gets even better: Haig has a wry sense of humor, and he imparts his character, Sean Drummond, with a repertoire of wisecracks that begin on Page 1 with the protagonist’s desperate dash to a urinal following a trans-Pacific flight to Korea aboard a C-141 transport with a broken loo.

Drummond, a combat veteran of Panama and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, had been seriously wounded in action. To make himself useful to the army, he returned to college, earned a law degree and became the top troubleshooter for the army’s Judge Advocate General. In terms of literary genus, Drummond somewhat resembles Paul Brenner, Nelson DeMille’s army CID investigator (who appears in “Up Country,” set in Vietnam). Both men are anti-establishment mavericks who pit their individual principles against an inflexible and tradition-bound military, and both deliver a witty repartee in the first person.

In “Mortal Allies,” though, nobody’s laughing. Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. military has been nervously trying to come to terms with its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning gays in uniform. Drummond has been requested to serve as co-counsel to Katherine Carlson, a civilian attorney for OGMM, the Organization of Gay Military Members.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has been jeopardized in the past by crimes committed by American servicemen, but never by anything like this: An American officer faces a court martial on charges of raping and strangling a Korean enlisted man, who just happens to be the son of Korea’s defense minister.

To assuage the host nation’s sensibilities, the U.S. Army has assigned its “top gun” prosecutor and a “hanging judge” known to be completely unsympathetic to liberal causes.

Drummond is no Perry Mason, but his persistence in serving justice is bolstered by gallantry that sometimes borders on the irrational, making him an eminently appealing literary hero. And while Haig’s take on the situation in Korea may be a bit America-centric, his tightly written narrative displays conscientious research or, more likely, firsthand experience.

Haig’s other books in the Drummond series, although not set in Asia, are also worth a look, particularly “Private Sector,” a legal mystery set in Washington D.C. that involves a serial killer.