Set in hot and humid Singapore in the 1930s, Waking the tiger is a murder mystery that stalks around the colonialism and rising fascism of the era, and it also introduces a great new fictional detective: Inspector Maximo Betancourt.
Betancourt is working in the Special Investigations Department of the Marine Branch, after losing his job in the Singapore CID due to being distracted by the disappearance of Anna, his wife. In his new position he deals with mundane problems on the Singapore waterfront, most often relating to contraband. And Betancourt is not above retaining some of the seizures to facilitate his network of informers.
In the last six months there have also been protests at the docks – an embargo on shipping certain goods to Japan, those that might help the Imperial Army’s designs on Asia, has led to Chinese dockworkers protesting any trade with their homeland’s enemies. Betancourt is dealing with one such protest when a woman’s body is discovered on the wharf, she had been laid out as though “for some bizarre shamanistic ritual” and is holding a fragment of yellow parchment. Betancourt flips into CID mode and the investigation is afoot.
Betancourt is appalled at the dismissal of the woman’s death by officials and traders, who want to ignore it as the suicide of just another karayuki-san, Japanese sex worker – despite the facts that there is no evidence that was her trade, or that she committed suicide. And even if they were right “Whatever she may have done for a living, she’d been someone. A daughter, perhaps a sister, a friend”. He persists despite being warned off and uncovers links to one of Singapore’s most prestigious trading houses, to Japanese gangs who support the Japanese military agenda, and to people much closer to Betancourt’s circle.
Betancourt’s family was from Malacca, but he considers Singapore as his home. Given his non-European appearance he must put up with the racism of those who just happen to live in Singapore to build their fortunes, and who see themselves as superior to any non-whites. The disappearance of Anna has opened a rift between Betancourt and his in-laws, the Cléments, a trading family. His daughter, Lucia, is living with her grandparents and starting to blame Betancourt for her mother’s disappearance as Anna’s parents do, and as does Betancourt himself.
Another problem Betancourt has is a growing number of unpaid bills, and he finds himself in danger of losing his daughter completely. However, he is not without friends. He frequents the stables of a horse-trainer, Allenby. He remains in touch with Anna’s friend Marjorie. His ethnicity gives him access to many of the places, and much of the information, that would be off-limits to a British police detective. And he finds a new and intriguing ally in pathologist Dr Evelyn Trevose.
Dr Trevose shows Betancourt the magnificent tiger tattoo that graces the victim’s body, and how the wounds resemble painted tiger stripes, and she becomes involved in the investigation. One of the many things I liked about Waking the tiger is the agency given to the women in the story. Like Betancourt himself, they lack supreme privilege but not determination. There are some great characters that move the plot along, Evelyn Trevose and Marjorie, Betancourt’s Aunt Theresa, Daisy the walking Wikipedia, Ruby the manager of the Blue Nightingale, and Mei one of the club’s hostesses.
The fascinating, and horrifying, history of the times is well researched – I for one would never have put Oswald Mosley and Gandhi together in a paragraph! The plotting is solid, and the mystery is satisfyingly solved. Betancourt’s network of supporters, his relationships with Lucia and Dr Trevose, and the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, all foreshadow more Max Betancourt mysteries to come!