A sadistic paint-by-numbers police procedural novel out of Malaysia
UTube, the latest in the Inspector Mislan series of police procedural novels set in Malaysia by Rozlan Mohd Noor, looks like it should be good—and yet, it’s really not. Which is a mystery by itself: how can a book include all the right elements and still fall so short?
It checks all the boxes on the list of a successful crime novel: a play-by-his-own-rules cop, a repulsive crime featuring the Internet, a colorful supporting cast, and a deeper conspiracy lurking in the background. It even has a blurb from acknowledged master Michael Connelly on the front cover like a shining gold star from a favorite teacher.
But the book still reads like someone has transcribed an episode of CSI or SVU as they watched it on TV.
In the novel, a team of rapists break into women’s apartments in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, and then take videos of their assaults, which they post on UTube, a very lightly disguised stand-in for YouTube. The victims, it’s revealed, are all lesbians, and the rapists are part of a group of Islamist bigots trying to “correct” them. The case eventually winds up with Noor’s recurring hero Inspector Mislan Latif, although it spends the first 55 pages of the novel with the sex crimes detective Inspector Sherry and her team.
From there, the book proceeds like Ikea instructions. The media predictably go insane over the crimes. There’s a clueless, publicity-hungry supervisor who demands results and promises to fire Mislan if he doesn’t get them. Mislan and Sherry clash over who should run the case—although both are too polite to actually yell about it. Their conflicts are mainly expressed through Mislan passive-aggressively smoking in non-smoking areas.
Everyone in the book regards Mislan as a rebel, like Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch, or John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. But those characters get results. Mislan is just an unpleasant dick, smirking and grinning as his colleagues do the actual work of collecting witness statements and fingerprints, and even fetching lunch. I waited for him to have a moment of Sherlockian brilliance that would pull the case together and justify his attitude. It never came.
And Mislan isn’t much of a maverick. His witness intimidation amounts to a few cutting remarks in an interrogation room. The moment that finally pushes his superiors too far comes when he pulls his gun in public without a direct threat to his own life. In Malaysia, apparently, this is grounds for immediate discipline of a police officer. In America, that’s Tuesday.
Mislan and his team advance the case through patient legwork, blind luck, and the stupidity of their targets—which is, to be fair, how most actual crimes are solved.
Noor, the author, should know this as well as anyone. According to his bio, he was a crime investigator and court prosecutor in Malaysia for 11 years. I would have loved to see some of that authenticity, as well as Noor’s knowledge of his home country, in the book. There are books, like John Burdett’s Royal Thai Detective series, that bring the reader into a foreign city and reveal another world entirely.
But none of Noor’s experience makes it onto the page. There is almost no attempt to bring Malaysia to life. You could swap out most of the place names in UTube for locations in Los Angeles without losing a thing. And it takes until midway through the book before we learn that all homosexual activity is illegal in Malaysia, with a heavy prison sentence—which may explain why the victims are so reluctant to cooperate with the police, information that would have been helpful around chapter one.
There is a much better novel lurking at the edges of UTube, which explores the pressures of trying to solve a crime where the victims shouldn’t exist according to the state religion, where cops are expected to be polite, and where drawing your gun could get you thrown off the force.
Instead, the novel sits there, inert, as you turn the pages and witness what happens next, much like the cops. It’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re just reading about terrible things done to innocent people for entertainment.
You don’t need a crime novel for that. Here’s a quick sample of the headlines on a random day on Google News: Teenager abducted from his basement found badly injured; Spring Breakers could face homicide charges for raping woman before leaving her to die; Man shot outside jail had up to 64 bullet wounds; Car pulled from creek in search for missing mom. If you want the gory details, all you have to do is scroll, or listen to a podcast.
A good crime novel has more than a bland recitation of ugliness and the steps taken to find the people who did it. Elmore Leonard could take the most senseless behavior and make it seem inevitable; he could make the bombing of a drug dealer’s house funny or turn a shootout into a moral struggle.
But to pull that off, the author has to find the story behind the blood spatter. Without that connecting thread, UTube is another series of pointless crimes against helpless people, and we get enough of those in real life.
(Arcade Publishing, July 14, 2021)