By Jane Pek
Mystery/Vintage/Paperback/354 pages/$28.82/Released on Feb 22, pre-order here
4 out of 5
“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death,” wrote British playwright Oscar Wilde.
Singaporean Jane Pek considers both kinds of mystery in her debut novel, an intricately knotty whodunnit that matches online dating with murder.
Her heroine, Claudia Lin, works at Veracity, a New York detective agency that investigates online dating profiles, verifying for clients if their potential dates are indeed who they claim to be.
Claudia is a lover of classic literature – “you must be the only millennial in the world to rely on romantic advice from the Middle Ages”, complains her roommate after she quotes dating tips from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife Of Bath at him – and an avid mystery enthusiast.
She is obsessed with the Inspector Yuan mystery novels, which are set in ancient China, and is constantly asking herself: “What would Inspector Yuan do?”
She also excels at keeping secrets from her family.
Her mother, a Taiwanese immigrant who single-handedly raised three kids, is not aware that Claudia has jettisoned her lucrative finance career to play sleuth or that all efforts to match her with a nice Chinese boy are in vain because she prefers girls.
Enter Iris Lettriste, a Veracity client with a hidden agenda of her own.
When Iris turns up dead, Claudia cannot resist investigating, even as her enigmatic boss Komla and acerbically competent colleague Becks warn her to leave the case alone.
As Claudia digs further, she begins to realise even Veracity may not be what it seems.
The plot starts slow and steadily deepens in complexity. It requires Pek to juggle many balls at once – the murder mystery, the immigrant family drama and the interrogation of dating app ethics – and it is impressive that she keeps them all in the air, though some have a bigger pay-off than others.
The jargon-laden debates about the privacy pitfalls of social media are leavened by the emotional heft of Claudia’s scenes with her family, whether she is being guilt-tripped by her mother for not visiting more often or bickering with her overachieving brother Charles and beautiful yet insecure sister Coraline.
Can an algorithm really find you love? Or does it pre-select your choices and, in so doing, streamline and orchestrate your desires?
“Impossible to verify,” says a character, “since we can never know what they failed to show us, and so over time what they do present to us – what they want us to want – does indeed become what we want.”
That quite hollows out the romance of it. Better, perhaps, to let love remain a mystery – you risk never finding the answer, but it is such a thrill to solve.
If you like this, read: Dial A For Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto (Berkley, 2021, $19.80, buy here, borrow here). Photographer Meddelin Chan hopes to strike out from the wedding planning business run by her mother and three aunts. But when she accidentally murders her creepy date, they are the ones who show up to help hide the body – while simultaneously trying to pull off a lavish resort wedding.