Anthology Review: ‘Singapore Noir’ edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore NoirSingapore Noir by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review from ARC. Expected publication June 3, 2014.

Given that this book is being published in America by a US-based company, I’m going to go ahead and assume that it is primarily geared towards people who aren’t intimately familiar with Singapore. The fact that it’s in English particularly doesn’t mean much; English is prevalent over there. Or should I say Singlish? I had a Singaporean roommate first year of university and the cadence of speech is quite different-lah.

I’ve been to Singapore briefly, and puttered around Mumbai (same climate) more than once. If you haven’t been to that part of the world, some of the settings might be harder to picture. And in an anthology titled ‘Singapore Noir’ that promises in the foreword to sweep aside the widely promulgated image of Singapore, setting matters a lot.

This anthology is separated into four parts: Sirens, Love (or Something Like It), Gods and Demons, and then The Haves and the Have-Nots. The latter two are more uniquely Singaporean than the former two, but overall the plots are simple and relatively predictable (barring several ending zingers)—it’s noir, someone’s going to get hurt.

I don’t think that’s completely bad, though. On the other side of the world in a climate so different they don’t even have the same seasons, seedy detectives fall for mysterious, beautiful women; spouses murder spouses for their own mistakes; etc. Having no mental picture of the towering apartment complexes and the verdant foliage does interfere with a full appreciation of the stories, but given that it’s 2014 and we’ve got this Interweb thing now, filling in the blanks is possible. I definitely couldn’t name the settings without looking them up—the neighborhoods are listed. You can’t get other sensations over Google, but if you’ve ever been to the South near summertime, you’ve experienced the kind of clinging humid heat that happens near the equator in Asia, even if the smell isn’t quite the same.

That said, the characters are distinctly Singaporean. Many businessmen, many expatriates; a mix of Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, and a Westerner here and there—the Singaporean melting pot is tightly regulated (or was in the ’90s, anyway), and there’s enough discussion of the racial tensions, especially in one of my personal favorites, “Smile, Singapore” by Colin Cheong, to add a dimension to these stories that wouldn’t exist in an American noir anthology. And then there’s the stories based around spirits, mainly but not exclusively in the ‘Gods and Demons’ section.

So anyway, if you like noir and would like to catch up on the seedy underbelly of one of the Four Asian Tigers (Dragons), give this anthology a read. I’ll say from my limited personal experience that Singapore pushes its clean, friendly, sane image pretty far, and this anthology succeeds in painting a picture of the city-state that is far outside that veil.

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