OCTOBER 5, 2020
21 IMMORTALS: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders opens on three artfully displayed corpses: mom, dad, and son, seated at the dining table, each in front of a plate of yee sang, a vegetable dish typically served for Chinese New Year. Inspector Mislan Latif — single dad and dedicated cop, just off a 24-hour shift where “he handled two homicides and one armed robbery” — is assigned to the case and takes it on without complaint. He arrives at the scene, pushes through the press, and after a whiff of perfume emanating from the fresh bodies, he’s off and running on a tightly plotted journey through Kuala Lumpur and the politics of big-city policing.
Originally published in Malaysia in 2010, 21 Immortals is the first in a series of English-language Inspector Mislan novels by Rozlan Mohd Noor, a former police officer. The second of the series, DUKE: Inspector Mislan and the Expressway Murders, is due out in March 2021. Written in terse prose with to-the-point dialogue, little gets in the way of Noor’s narrative momentum and he tears through the story’s investigation with a nimble touch. For writers and readers of the genre, the novel’s systematic assembly of suspects and evidence, paired with the interstitial “here’s what we know so far” summaries Mislan shares with his boss, should offer a clear study of pace and plotting, much like the underside of a complicated stitch. The strength of the story lies in the highly inventive (and not completely implausible) method of murder and its methodical approach to plot, though some readers may long for a deeper sense of character and place. Noor’s descriptions of Kuala Lumpur are rich in references to food and neighborhoods, but limited in emotive and tactile detail. However, Noor excels in writing about the minutiae of investigative procedure and makes crystal clear what we know and how we know it; if he wasn’t an expert in policing, one might guess he was a veteran journalist.
The primary victim of the story is Robert Tham, the wealthy Chinese co-founder of RT Fashion, a well-known design house. The murder, which includes hydrogen cyanide gas and an elaborate embalming, depends on solving the ever-evolving combination of who, how, and why, to keep up with the rapid pace of the story’s unfolding investigation. After Mislan leaves the crime scene in the tony Ampang Hilir neighborhood — “[a] residential address beyond the reach of most Malaysians” — he begins his journey at the RT headquarters, where we’re introduced to the “21 Immortals,” a once-powerful secret society of which Tham was a member. Then there’s the group’s possible connection with the D7, the investigative arm of the KL police department, where Mislan’s secondary concern — who’s the corrupt cop? — comes into play. Added to the pot is the one-week deadline imposed on Mislan by the top brass to close the case before it falls into the questionable hands of the shifty D7.
It’s this conflict, between the moral Mislan and the politicized higher-ups, where his character is best revealed, and the story’s world-building elucidates who’s good and who’s bad. Concerned that he might have overstepped his bounds with the head of the department, Jo, Mislan’s ever-ready assistant, reminds him, “Remember what you said to me when I was assigned to you? You said there were two types of investigators, one works hard to close a case and the other works hard to get closures. You asked which I was. I didn’t know then, but after working with you, I know.”
Beyond his unfailing commitment to the job, there is little revealed about Mislan and what drives his devotion to policing. We know that his now ex-wife, Lynn, was annoyed by his work addiction and left for “a friend’s birthday party” only to return a few days later for her clothes. Despite this, Mislan still holds on to the nostalgia. “He still sees her, talks to her, smiles at her in his mind, in his memories, and is often swept away by grief and longing,” Noor writes. “It is a part of his life where time refuses to move on. How could he ever be resigned to never seeing her again?” The repercussions of the divorce are obscure, but Lynn’s absence does leave Mislan and their six-year-old son, Daniel, to fend for themselves. Although Mislan is guilty of late nights away from home, father and son get along fine, especially with the live-in maid on hand. Besides some annoyance over his father’s unavailability, there is little strain between the pair, and Mislan is rarely conflicted over what his lifestyle might do to their relationship. Mislan starts a romance with Dr. Safia, a forensic pathologist who helps with some key evidence and acts as a support system when Mislan gets too absorbed with the case. She’s tolerant of Mislan’s egocentric stoicism, and although their interactions maintain a pleasant, PG flirtiness, they do eventually sleep together.
No words were spoken, none were necessary. He desperately needed to feel alive again, to have a relationship, to share, to care and be cared for. As for her, he doesn’t know what her reasons were. Perhaps she feels the same needs and shows it by being there for him. He probes his conscience, trying to understand what happened. Was it a need, a want, or lust?
It’s here that the uncluttered approach to emotion in this world is best exemplified.
Similarly, Mislan’s boss Samsiah, superintendent of police, serves in a supportive role, mainly as a buffer between Mislan and the head of the department, and as a cheerleader for getting the job done. When the case fails to get the traction it needs to stay on deadline, she reassures Mislan that she’s got his back. As long as Mislan stays focused, there’s little that will destroy him. But if there’s anything that serves to at least annoy Mislan, it’s the press, which dubs the grotesque crime the “yee sang murders,” playing on the fact that the murder involves a foreigner. Eager to get something out to the media, the police department’s “PR Dolls” suggest a questionable connection to the crime, temporarily fumbling the case for Mislan. And there’s Audi, an eager journalist from the Astro Awani news program who’s willing to share compromising photos from an unpublished story in exchange for an exclusive. Noor never falters from Mislan’s straitlaced approach to police work, and the astute inspector strings the reporter along with little intention to consider a deal. There’s a desire to watch Mislan tempt fate and divert from his moral compass but his manipulation of the arrangement is nonetheless pleasing. The media in Malaysia appears to be just as desperate as anywhere else.
With its deep colonial past, diverse ethnic groups, and Islamic majority, Malaysia is an inherently intriguing country to set a crime novel in. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, holds considerable economic strength and maintains its position as a modern crossroads; the city’s skyline would look as impressive on a computer background as that of any other global metropolis. But even as a major Southeast Asian city, it is arguably less familiar to Westerners than places like Saigon, Hong Kong, or Singapore. 21 Immortals works well as an introduction to Kuala Lumpur’s potential for story, and Noor touches upon the city’s distinct identity with intriguing details that are natural to the region: there’s the suspicion a Malay man would attract in a Chinese café, the relationship Indian immigrants have with the tech industry, and the not-so-subtle suggestion of Chinese and European economic ascendance in a growing economy. It would be interesting to see if any of these themes play out in subsequent books in the series. But what we’re given in this first installment is enough to pique curiosity about a place completely of its own, and Noor is successful in developing a character who is perhaps equally specific to his place and time.