Kain Songket Mysteries #1: Shadow Play

By Barbara Ismail
285 pages
Published in Singapore by Monsoon Books Pte Ltd (2012)

When I read the first few pages of this book, it reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs: it’s a story of tragedy that befell a man who had had more than one lover.

Maryam, a successful kain songket trader in the Kota Bharu Central Market, was throwing a celebration for her youngest son Yi’s circumcision ceremony. She had hired Dollah Baju Hijau’s wayang siam troupe to perform on her land as part of the celebration.

Wayang siam is a form of shadow puppet play which was popular in Kelantan decades ago. In the olden days, these shadow puppet shows had mystical elements which involved conjuring spells and calling up help from spirits to ensure the audiences were captivated by the show. This story was set in the Malaysian state of Kelantan in the 1970s, thus many of the traditions and lifestyles mentioned in the book are hardly available for observation nowadays. I don’t think wayang siam still existed in Kelantan today – shadow puppets are still around, but the mystical elements were gone.

Back to the story, Dollah and his troupe had set up a makeshift wooden stage on Maryam’s land and they will perform for several days as part of the celebration. All troupe members will also sleep on the makeshift stage at night. One morning, one of the musicians in the troupe, Ghani was found dead with a stab wound. He was apparently killed the night before just outside the stage where the others were sleeping.

Ghani was married to Aisha, but just recently he quietly took a second wife named Faouda. Faouda  had impulsively appeared on Aisha’s doorstep several days ago to introduce herself, hoping that Ghani will let her stay with him. Calamity soon ensued at the house, and Ghani, unable to control the emotions of both his wives, divorced Faouda on the spot and ordered her to go back to rural Kuala Krai where she belonged. Then Ghani met his tragic death. Many people quickly assume that one of the wives must have killed him. 

Meanwhile, the Kelantan police force had just installed their new chief, a young man by the name Osman, who hailed from the state of Perak. Osman had never handled a murder case before, and as he had just moved to Kelantan, he had had difficulties to understand what witnesses were saying as he was not yet used to the Kelantanese dialect. Maryam was very concerned as the tragedy happened on her own land and during a supposedly joyous celebration for her family. She became impatient with Osman’s seemingly slow progress, thus she offered to help Osman to interpret or interview several people which had connections to the victim Ghani. Osman accepted Maryam’s offer.


Maryam began her investigations by talking to Aisha, her family members as well as Ghani’s family members. Both Aisha’s and Ghani’s family members hated Faouda so much that they believed she was responsible for killing Ghani to get back at him for divorcing her. However, Aisha had other views as well. She had actually mentioned a name (that later turned out to be the real killer), drawing him in as a suspect. However, at the time when Aisha mentioned the name and his probable motive for killing Ghani, it did not sound too strong or plausible enough to warrant him as the murderer.

Aisha’s view brought Maryam to investigate Dollah Baju Hijau’s troupe members. Dollah had been strangely helpful – sometimes even offering information to Maryam without being asked – but intriguingly, the information turned out to be either misleading or not helpful at all. He had led Maryam to his rival wayang siam leader Hassan, a grumpy man who shouted out profanities to Maryam and even shoving her onto the ground. Dollah claimed that Hassan must have killed Ghani to sabotage his wayang siam group. But Hassan insisted that despite the rivalry between himself and Dollah, he had no use to killing someone else’s musician. Then all the Dollah Baju Hijau troupe members narrated similar accounts to Maryam – which did not help Maryam at all – as if all answers had been tailored according to what Dollah wanted them to say.

Together with the police, Maryam continued to collect information and found that the more information they got, the more confusing the case became. The list of suspects, which was supposed to be narrowed down as investigations continued, grew larger instead.

Witnesses had claimed seeing Aisha and her younger brother Ali at the makeshift stage to meet with Ghani on the night before his death. And Ali was actually seen quarrelling with Ghani that night. However, it was not just Aisha and Ali. People also saw Hassan among the audiences during the night’s performance. And some witnesses also spotted Faouda at the show that night with another man, whom she claimed to be her new husband that she wanted to show off to Ghani (ironically they got married so soon after she was divorced by Ghani).

Not long after, Aisha went seriously ill and quickly died before Maryam had any chance to talk to her again. Doctors confirmed that she died of poison, and the poison was sourced from kecubong, a type of dangerous plant that can only be found in the jungle areas of Kelantan. Soon after kecubong was mentioned, Maryam quickly realized that that plant can only be found in such rural and jungle areas as Kuala Krai. Thus the main suspect for Aisha’s death: Faouda, who hailed from Kuala Krai.

When confronted, Faouda eventually admitted that she had put some kecubong leaves inside the tea box in Aisha’s home when she went there. So each time Aisha made and drank the tea, she will slowly get poisoned. She actually had no intention to kill Aisha at the first place. Before marrying Ghani, she had married another married man in Kuala Krai and had planned to poison that man’s first wife with the kecubong. But when the man divorced Faouda, and she quickly got married to Ghani afterwards, she let go of her plans to kill her. Faouda then brought the kecubong when she called on Aisha and decided that she might as well poison Aisha instead because the kecubong were already there in her possession anyway. 

I would have preferred if Aisha was killed for knowing something about Ghani’s murder, as that will certainly made the story much more sinister and darker (Aisha did get the name of Ghani’s killer right, after all). But rather, she was killed by the second wife who didn’t know what to do with the poison she brought. What a waste of a life!

However, Faouda insisted that she did not have anything to do with Ghani’s death, as she already had a new man in her life (duh!). The second wife had been heavily antagonized in this story: Faouda was not only a husband-snatcher, she’s also a murderer and looked like a complete bonkers, what with getting married and changing husbands as easily as changing clothes. Even when Maryam first concluded that Faouda had something to do with the case, it had not been an assumption based on a hundred percent of facts – Maryam did so because she believed that second wives are always a nuisance and always a source of suffering for other people.

After Aisha’s death, and with a lack of evidence to connect Faouda or her new husband with Ghani’s death, Maryam began to pursue the other suspects. The late Aisha had previously suggested Arifin, another musician in Dollah Baju Hijau’s troupe, as someone who might have killed Ghani. Arifin was a jealous man, and he had suspicions that the good-looking Ghani might have wanted to seduce his wife Zurainah. Arifin always quarrelled with either Ghani or Zurainah when he felt insecure.

So Maryam decided to talk to the wives of the other musicians, for they might know or overheard something about the case that their husbands did not tell Maryam. When she came to see Zurainah to ask her an innocent a question as possible, she can see Zurainah was furious and refusing to acknowledge knowing anything. She even warned Maryam to stay out of the investigation. And when Maryam was about to left her house, Zurainah came from behind and pushed Maryam in front of a moving car. Maryam was hospitalised after being ran over by the unsuspecting car.

Zurainah’s attempt to murder Maryam was suspicious enough that the police also began to believe that it had been Arifin who murdered Ghani. Arifin tried to escape when he was afterwards brought to the police station for questioning – strengthening the suspicions against him even more.

Finally Arifin confessed to him killing Ghani out of jealousy and his feelings of insecurity. The night of the murder, after their performance, Aisha and Ali came to meet Ghani to discuss Aisha’s predicament. Ali decided that Ghani’s infidelity had been caused by the influence of evil spirits, so he suggested Ghani get help from a bomoh (Malay witch doctor) to get himself exorcised. But Ghani fell into a rage and warned Aisha not to put him under any bomoh’s spell to make him loyal, or else he would divorce Aisha as well. Ghani had always been naughty, and he used to tease Zurainah when he saw her – despite knowing she was already someone else’s wife. And that was the reason why Arifin believed that Ghani was trying to seduce Zurainah. So when he saw Ghani already divorcing Faouda, and then threatening to divorce Aisha as well – Arifin was overwhelmed by insecurity, jealousy and resentment because he suspected that that would open the way for Ghani to take Zurainah from him. And so he killed Ghani.

Dollah had actually caught Arifin right after he killed Ghani. But he could not afford to lose another musician: with Ghani dead, he would not want to lose Arifin if he was convicted of the murder. So Dollah decided to cover up the murder and mislead the investigation.

Shadow Play is the first book in the Kain Songket Mystery series, a first of its kind detective story set in Kelantan, Malaysia. Author Barbara Ismail had experienced life in Kelantan during the 1970s and 1980s, hence the setting for this mystery series.

I am born Malaysian (and not Kelantanese, of course), yet some old Malay traditions such as wayang siam had been alien to me. It was great to be able to read and gain knowledge about the lifestyles of the Malay communities in the olden days. Some of the Malay idioms mentioned in the book are also new to me (or rather, ancient enough that it is not used anymore nowadays). Though I believed that the idiom “Hangat-hangat tahi ayam” may be more suitable for another context rather than how it was used in the book.

I also felt awkward when one of the characters used the expression “Alamak” when he discovered Ghani’s dead body. “Alamak”, for me, was not as strong an expression of pure shock as “Mak!” (“Oh Mom!”) or “Ya Allah!” (“Oh God!”) or maybe “Astaghfirullah!” (“God forgive us!”). Note: it may be strange, but some of us Malays do exclaim “Mak!” when we are totally shocked or spooked. On the other hand, “Alamak” is rather used in an expression of surprise over something much milder than a murder, i.e. “Alamak, I forgot to bring my wallet!” or “Alamak, these exam questions are so tough!” Well, unless, of course the person who exclaimed “Alamak!” when he found the dead Ghani was actually Arifin himself, then that explained the lack of shock in his expression!

Whatever it is, it was heart- to see Malay culture being incorporated into a mystery novel written by a non-Malaysian. Kudos to Barbara Ismail!


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