Cover image of "Waking the Tiger," a novel about a murder in colonial Singapore

Singapore, December 1939. The Second World War in Europe was four months old, but Japan had invaded nearby China more than two years earlier. And the polyglot English colony, located halfway between Calcutta and Hong Kong on the strategic Singapore Strait, was a tempting target for the militarists at the helm in Tokyo. Worse, the British had embargoed shipments of oil and rubber to Japan, tightening the noose around the island empire. The invasion of the colony was still two years in the future, but the signs of the conflict to come were glaring. This is the setting for Mark Wightman’s fascinating first entry in his series of historical mysteries, as Inspector Maximo Betancourt investigates a murder in colonial Singapore.

A troubled outsider in the police

Inspector Betancourt is a controversial figure in the police force, unloved by his boss and most of his colleagues. He is of mixed-race Portuguese-Malaccan descent, scorned both by the racist British in charge and the Chinese and Malaccan officers who predominate in the force. “His people,” Wightman explains, are “the Serani—descendants of distant unions between Portuguese seafarers and local Malaccans. . . [They] were the ones who would most often refer to Singapore as ‘home’ and mean it.”

Long a fixture in the Criminal Investigations Division, Betancourt had recently been bounced from the force. His wife, Anna, had disappeared, kidnapped or murdered seven months ago by one of the criminal gangs he was pursuing, and Betancourt had fallen apart. A supportive senior officer rescued him from his descent into hell by creating a new Special Investigations Unit of the Marine Branch and naming Betancourt its sole member. His charge is to uncover the smuggling and human trafficking operations the police know are underway on the docks. But now the corpse of a young woman has turned up there, and Betancourt is back in the game. Or so he thinks . . .

Waking the Tiger (Inspector Betancourt #1) by Mark Wightman (2021) 344 pages ★★★★★ 

Image of a street scene in colonial Singapore
Battery Road, Singapore, 1939. Image:

Investigating a murder in colonial Singapore against great odds

The dead woman presents a challenge for Betancourt on several counts. The Detective Branch asserts control over the case, so he can only investigate on his own shaky authority. An autopsy makes clear that she was murdered, but the police insist she is a prostitute who killed herself. Her body lay near the godown, or warehouse, of Betancourt’s wealthy father-in-law, Louis Clément. And a high official at Napier & Campbell, “the richest and most powerful of the British mercantile companies in Singapore,” is making calls to senior officials, demanding that they squelch Betancourt’s investigation. “And what Napier wanted, Napier usually got. It was said that if he wanted a white Christmas in Singapore, you wouldn’t want to bet long odds against it happening.” So, it’s clear that much more is going on than the murder of an unfortunate young Japanese woman.

Image of the Singapore skyline today
Singapore today.

An investigation that poses political complications

As Inspector Betancourt delves into Singapore’s murky underworld, he soon finds himself tangling with forces he can only dimly perceive. The colony’s powers-that-be seem arrayed against him. And the stakes rise perceptibly when Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), the charismatic founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists, pays a visit to Singapore. Clearly, there is a connection between Mosley and the ultranationalist Japanese gang that appears to be behind many of the colony’s recent troubles. Is there also a connection between the Japanese militarists and the young woman’s murder? Does this murder in colonial Singapore signify something much graver about the island’s future? Betancourt regards it as his sacred duty to find out.

About the author

Image of Mark Wightman, author of this novel about a murder in colonial Singapore

Mark Wightman “grew up in the Far East—first in Hong Kong, and then in Singapore, where he rode and trained horses competitively. Since then, Mark has lived and worked in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, where he is now a citizen.” So goes the bio on his agent’s website. Waking the Tiger is the first book in the Inspector Betancourt series, “in which Betancourt battles skulduggery and corruption and searches for justice in colonial Singapore.”

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