Cover image of "The Ambassador's Wife," the debut of the Jake Needham detective series

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Inspector Samuel Tay has been with the Singapore police for nearly twenty years, much of that time as a homicide detective in the elite Special Investigations Section of CID. But he is squeamish and can’t stand the sight of mangled flesh and blood. So, when the body of a woman turns up displayed on a bed in a five-star hotel, he insists that his assistant view the remains in his stead. And a gruesome sight it is. Whoever killed the unidentified woman clearly hated her beyond the bounds of all reason. And now Sam and his assistant, Sergeant Robbie Kang, face the unwelcome task of identifying the victim and apprehending her murderer in the absence of any clues whatsoever apart from the body itself. Thus begins the gripping first entry in the Jake Needham detective series, The Ambassador’s Wife.

More than just another sad and sordid event

From the start, then, this case stands out. As Sam muses, “Murders in Singapore weren’t the romanticized duels between clever killers and plodding investigators that ended up as Michael Douglas movies. They were mostly sad and sordid events perpetrated by people who had lost money, lost a job, lost a spouse, lost hope.” But the savagery of this woman’s murder is unprecedented, in Sam’s experience. And the mystery deepens when, after days of dogged investigation, it develops that she was the wife of the American Ambassador to Singapore.

The Ambassador’s Wife (Inspector Samuel Tay #1) by Jake Needham (2015) 378 pages ★★★★★

The skyline of Singapore today, the setting for the Jake Needham detective series
The skyline of Singapore’s Downtown Core. Image: Ray in Manila – Wikipedia

The most challenging case in the detective’s career

Once the victim’s identity is known, the US Embassy enters the picture. Tony DeSouza, the FBI agent who is the legal attaché at the American embassy, moves to seize control of the case. He’s convinced the murder was a terrorist act and will point his investigation in that direction. But Sam continues chipping away at the case on his own. And when the ambassador names the embassy’s security coordinator, a young woman named Cally Parks, as Sam’s liaison, it soon develops that she will join him in pursuing the investigation independently. Because she knows that the ambassador has instructed DeSouza to find a terrorist and cook up the evidence to frame him. The ambassador, it seems, is determined to keep the facts of the case out of the press and wrap it up as quickly as possible. Which may be politically understandable but is suspicious nonetheless.

But no sooner than Sam and Cally begin digging into the few meager facts they’re able to uncover about the case than a second, similar murder turns up more than a thousand miles away in Bangkok. And the investigation then takes on even wider international implications. It will prove to be the most challenging—and most dangerous—assignment in Sam Tay’s career.

What you may not know about Singapore

Singapore is an island city-state of some six million people. It’s located off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, in one of the most geo-strategic spots in the world. The country’s 63 islands lie along the major shipping route of the Strait of Malacca just north of Indonesia.

Singapore is the second most densely-populated city in the world. Virtually all but the wealthiest people live crammed into high-rise apartment buildings. But they all enjoy the benefits of a highly developed market economy, as Singapore boasts the highest per-capita income of the Four Asian Tigers, which include Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, then, Singapore has the second-highest cost of living of any city in the world. But only some ten percent of Singapore’s people live in poverty.

The population of Singapore is multiethnic. About three-quarters of its people are of Chinese descent, 13 percent Malayan, and nine percent Indian. Although the country has four official languages, English is the main language used in business, government, law, and education.

Historically, as a consequence of its strategic location, Singapore has been a major trading port and a battleground of empires. The British seized it in 1819, and it remained a British crown colony until the Japanese conquered the island in 1942. It was one of the British Empire’s most humiliating defeats in its history. Singapore became independent in 1965 under its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee guided the island’s development until 1990, exercising dictatorial control in the interest of building its economy. Singapore is notorious for the severity of its laws against drug use and defacing public property.

About the author

Photo of Jake Needham, author of the Jake Needham detective series
Jake Needham. Image: Wikipedia

As Hong Kong Magazine once noted, “Jake Needham is probably the best known American writer almost no one in America has ever heard of.”

Jake Needham writes on his author website that “Once upon a time, I was a screen and television writer, but then I started writing crime novels when I realized I really didn’t like movies and television all that much. Since then, I’ve published thirteen books. [The actual total to date is fifteen.] I may be an American novelist, but my books are far better known outside the United States than they are in it.”

Wikipedia explains that Needham “has lived and worked in Asia since 1981.” He is married to a Thai woman with whom he has two sons. She is a graduate of Oxford University and one of Thailand’s leading magazine editors and newspaper columnists. They live in Thailand.

Needham was born in Houston and earned a bachelor’s degree at Rice University and a law degree at Georgetown.

Both Needham’s own website and Wikipedia allege that his books are unavailable in North America. But a glance at Amazon shows fourteen English-language titles, including seven of the Inspector Samuel Tay novels. Obviously, they’ve been licensed for publication here by his publishers.

I’ve reviewed the second book in this series as well: The Umbrella Man (Investigating a terrorist bombing in Singapore).

I’ve also reviewed two other excellent mysteries set in Singapore:

I’ve reviewed a great many mysteries and thrillers set elsewhere in Asia. You’ll find a lot of them at:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.