Coming up with a good opening line is every author’s challenge – especially so if one happens to be debuting as a crime novelist. For his maiden attempt at producing fast-paced pulp fiction with pith, Alois Leinweber settled on this one:
“The woman sat down close to him, close enough for him to feel her warmth through his trousers.”
It worked for me as I found myself turning all 252 pages of Jasmine for the Dead with eagerness and ease. Set in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, the book starts off as a classic whodunit, with an honest cop as the main protagonist and much of the action revolving around the discovery of a naked white body by the steps of the national monument – dead, of course, skull bashed in with a hard object and a bullet wound in the neck.
Turns out the murder victim is an Englishman named James Hollander, freelance journalist and former British soldier posted in Malaya. Apparently he has been shot with an army issue pistol from the early post-war era.
Chief Inspector Chee Keong is the sort of detective who rarely gets in the news – simply because he takes his job seriously and enjoys it. Assisted by his trusty sidekick Haris Askandar, Inspector Chee Keong is modeled after famous fictional sleuths like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – a cop with razor-sharp intelligence and a bloodhound nose who somehow manages to remain likeable and human despite his less-than-pleasant job.
Leinweber takes pains to develop the Chief Inspector as his central figure, so that within a couple of chapters he serves as the reader’s alter ego even as he pulls together the various plot strands. Apart from his detective work, Chee Keong has a personal life. He jogs, he has a wide circle of friends, he’s well read, likes his food, enjoys travel, and he has an alluring Malay girlfriend named Sharifah. The author uses the romance between Inspector Chee Keong and Sharifah to shed some light on problems confronting interracial couples, and I don’t doubt that some of it is autobiographical.
Investigating the murder of James Hollander leads the dedicated sleuth down many intriguing paths across a broad span of time and space. We learn that the murdered Englishman is linked with the 1948 Batang Kali massacre – another ugly blot in the history of British colonialism wherein 24 unarmed Chinese villagers were brutally executed as a warning to others against collaborating with Communist insurgents. Relatives of those killed in Batang Kali have waited 66 years for the British government to apologize and compensate them – but in vain. Was James Hollander a member of the Scots Guards platoon responsible for this bloodbath? Why had he been visiting Batang Kali and seeking out surviving relatives of those shot in cold blood?
The dead journalist, we learn, was previously married to a German named Petra Schmidt, senior executive in a Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical firm with a few skeletons in its closet involving contaminated medicines (which they were foisting off in Southeast Asia through their Bangkok office). Although long estranged from one another Petra and James had yet to formalize their divorce.
True to his calling as an investigative journalist, Hollander had been digging into this scandal and had uncovered enough documentary evidence to do an exposé that would have devastating consequences on the pharmaceutical firm. Instead of admitting to unethical practices, the company had invested in a high-powered public relations agency based in Kuala Lumpur to do some damage control.
Inspector Chee Keong also learns that the dead man had had a keen interest in Malaysia’s notorious human trafficking syndicates. Hollander had apparently taken it upon himself to establish a special fund to help stranded foreign workers, lured over to Malaysia by unscrupulous recruiting agents, who then confiscated their passports and forced them into slave labor. Realizing that negative publicity alone wouldn’t solve the problem because of entrenched corruption within the Malaysian bureaucracy, James Hollander had begun extorting “donations” from agencies recruiting foreign labor, which he then channeled into his fund.
To further complicate the plot, James Hollander shared an apartment with his gay lover, a German expatriate named Hubert Gehrcke, who seemed troubled about his partner’s promiscuous tendencies.
With so many different leads to work with, Inspector Chee Keong is hard pressed to find out which one to follow. On top of all this, he has to deal with a less than supportive Chief of Police, his immediate boss, the crusty Datuk Nazim Ahmad (whose personal secretary, Azleena, happens to have a soft spot for Inspector Chee Keong, thereby easing the tension a little).
Another Datuk enters the thickening plot, Azmi Hamid, director-general of the Immigration Department. Suspicion surrounds this suave character who openly admits to the detectives that he was once a partner in a foreign worker recruitment agency. Datuk Azmi solemnly warns Chee Keong and Haris that there are moles in the Police Force they must flush out.
What Leinweber has achieved with Jasmine for the Dead is nothing less than a craftsmanlike tour de force. It’s not easy to keep so many balls in the air with a plot so rich in false trails and red herrings. For a first novel, he has succeeded admirably in serving up as a main dish a mature and intelligent action thriller in the classic whodunit format – with lots of titillating side dishes thrown in.
In the process Leinweber manages to address a plethora of political issues that constitute the shadow side of Malaysia’s sunny disposition – the smiling face she presents to the casual tourist. Particularly poignant are his revelations on exactly how human trafficking works in Malaysia. The nightmare zone he leads his reader through is stark and vivid. Indeed, it was what triggered my decision to review Jasmine for the Dead – just to get the message out to more people who need to know what’s going on.
The author himself is certainly no casual tourist, having lived several decades in Malaysia with his German-educated Malaysian wife. I was introduced to him many years ago as someone with wide ranging interests and skills. Apart from being (yes, you guessed it) a freelance journalist, Alois Leinweber also teaches German, literature, and music in an international school. He has also written travel books and produced a 30-minute documentary (Rebel Dancer, 2003) on legendary classical Indian dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Apart from that, he’s a passionate accordionist and aficionado of the arts.
I assume he can also cook, as he pays loving attention to what his characters consume at every meal, making his whodunit work overtime as a culinary guide to Malaysia. It was a distinct pleasure to see my own country through his eyes and I heartily applaud Alois Leinweber for doing a thoroughly magnificent job of capturing the subtle flavors and nuances that make Malaysia so unique.
If I wished to nitpick, I might pounce on the fact that I found the ending a bit of an emotional letdown. As Malaysians we have become almost paralyzed by our inability to vote out the corrupt regime that has bled the national coffers for almost 44 years – or since the introduction in 1970 of a barely concealed apartheid system that has effectively promoted mediocrity to the very top, forcing a massive brain drain of talent and oppressing those who opt to stay).
It has reached the point where we feel deeply disappointed whenever the big fish get away with murder – as they invariably do, and continue to do so, even in works of fiction.
And this may sound petty but as a lifelong smoker, I couldn’t help feeling slightly affronted by his constant harping on people’s tobacco habits. But apart from that, Leinweber’s preliminary venture into pithy pulp fiction gave me so much pleasure, I am already looking forward to seeing Inspector Chee Keong and his assistant Haris Askandar in their next detective adventure.
Who knows, somebody might even have the good sense to buy the movie rights to this stimulating sizzler?
Jasmine for the Dead was originally written in German and published as Jasmin für einen Toten. The English translation was published under the Aletheia imprint in May 2014 and distributed by Gerakbudaya.