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Crime mystery set in Phnom Penh (plus author Question and Answer)

8th April 2015

Death in the Rainy Season by Anna Jaquiery, crime mystery set in Phnom Penh.

All through September, the rains cause “havoc along the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake, ruining rice crops and destroying houses…”

IMG_0410It is the end of September 2011 and the monsoons are in full swing, the rain blasts across the country, the deluges are regular and insistent. Commandant Serge Morel is taking a well-earned break up in Siem Reap where he is enjoying the wonders of Ta Prohm. Meanwhile, down in Phnom Penh a French national is found brutally murdered, his face unrecognisable, it was a vicious and frenzied attack that left his body slumped against the wall in a hotel.

Morel is summoned to investigate and join forces with local investigating officer, Chey Sarit. He finds himself in an unenviable position, as the Cambodians are pushing for the murderer to be identified within the Western community, they do not want to see one of their own tarnished with the murder of a Westerner. Back in France there is pressure from Morel’s boss to bring the case to a swift conclusion, as the dead man, Hugo Quercy is the nephew of a Minister. Morel is half Khmer yet here he is in Phnom Penh ” .. a tourist, a passing observer, being asked to help solve a murder in a country that remained a mystery to him”.

As Morel delves deeper into Quercy’s life and gets to know his family, friends and work colleagues, he finds a rather murky world on the periphery, in which Quercy seemed to be involved through the NGO he was running – fighting underage child sex, and a personal mission to research the evils of land-grabs/illegal logging. The author is clearly passionate about the iniquitous nature of both, and highlights that over the past 15 years the government has leased nearly half the country’s land to private investors, and that the logging is to make way for rubber and sugar. (She cites: “the casual indifference to people’s rights that I encountered in Cambodia seemed at first extraordinary. But soon it began to appear routine.”  Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers).

With thought and contemplation, Morel cleaves his way through the detection process, and with the odd glass of Otard Cognac to hand, he reflects on individual motives and the broader panoply of life, always mindful of the vagaries of detection by the locals.

Setting is a big character in this book. I could imagine myself sloshing through the monsoon downpours with Commandant Morel, sharing his Tuk Tuk down Sisowath Quay, visiting the Foreign Correspondents Club and observing the local customs. It is hot, it is energy sapping and it is Phnom Penh! Enjoy.

Anna has kindly agreed to answer some of our questions and she shares top tips for a visit to Phnom Penh:

TF: The setting of Cambodia, specifically Phnom Penh, makes a stunning backdrop to this, the second Commandant Serge Morel novel. What made you choose this particular location?

AJ: I love Southeast Asia and feel at home when I’m in that part of the world. I spent my childhood there: during the first ten years of my life, I lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. My parents have retired in Malaysia, so I still travel there regularly. As for Cambodia, I’ve been there several times and grown to love the place. I love the lushness of the landscapes, and the energy and bustle in the streets. There is so much life, so much to experience.

TF: How did you go about researching the culture so that the book feels authentic?

AJ: I’d read several books on Cambodia’s history before I’d even contemplated setting a book there. I’ve always been interested in the country’s history. My parents left Phnom Penh in 1975, in the weeks preceding the first Khmer Rouge offensive against Phnom Penh in 1975. I was very young then and don’t really remember that time. But I grew up with their nostalgia, and their stories. Once I decided to set the second Morel book in Cambodia, and I knew what the story would be, I started researching specific issues on the Internet, such as NGOs, the Khmer Rouge trials, and land evictions. I talked to many people, including François Ponchaud, a French Catholic priest who has spent most of his life in Cambodia, and Dr. Milton Osborne, who has written several books on the region, as well as others, including friends who have been living and working there for a long time. Two years ago, I travelled back to Phnom Penh with this book in mind, and spent hours on end walking everywhere, taking in as much as I could.

TF: Serge Morel is part Khmer. He seems to be able to straddle both Western and Cambodian cultures. What was your inspiration for his character?

AJ: I guess I’d have to say my own background is what drove me to create a Eurasian character. My mother is French and my father is Malaysian. I’ve also had a nomadic life. My father was a diplomat and we moved every three years on average. I wanted Morel to have that hybrid experience. I don’t think he’s anything like me, but that is one aspect of his character I can relate to. I wanted him to be part Khmer, because it gave me an excuse to write about a country I find fascinating.

TF: You bring to the reader’s attention the terrible trade in children in the city and the land grabs/illegal logging going on across the country. These must have been very difficult areas to research?

AJ: There are certainly some challenging issues in Cambodia, and some of what I’ve read and heard is confronting. But there are also many positive things. I spoke with enterprising and creative Cambodians, and foreigners, who are passionate about this country, and invested in its future. I think many Cambodians are a bit tired of being seen only in terms of what happened in the 1970s. Which isn’t to say the past doesn’t matter. It’s simply that they want to look to the future. Part of the reason for that is that the population is very young, with nearly two thirds under the age of 30. I’m hoping I managed a balance in my book, between representing the past and the real issues that affect the country now, and the hope and vibrancy I encountered.

TF:  Early in the book Serge Morel is on holiday in Siem Reap. He favours Ta Prohm over Angkor Wat. Can you share some of your personal favourite places to visit for anyone heading to Cambodia? Restaurants and places to stay?

AJ: I think a trip to Siem Reap is a definite must. The temples are extraordinary. Angkor Wat is the largest complex and the most well-known, but others made a much bigger impression when I visited them many years ago, including Ta Prohm, Bayon and Banteay Srei. There is a lot to explore in Phnom Penh, and many great places to stay. If you’re looking for something different to what the big chains tend to offer, then hotels like Samsara Villa, the Plantation, the Sangkum Hotel, or Villa Langka are the way to go. Another great thing about Phnom Penh is the French influence from colonial times. You can get authentic French croissants and pastries at Kayser, or at any of the Brown outlets. A drink at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is an absolute must, preferably with a seat overlooking the river, as is a shopping trip to the labyrinthine Russian market.

TF: What will the next setting be in the Serge Morel series?

AJ: At the moment, I’m working on a third book in the series. This story is set on a housing estate in a troubled suburb, or banlieue, north of Paris. It couldn’t be further removed from the last book’s setting! I wanted to write about immigration and what it means to belong. I was also interested in the question of geographical exclusion. A person living in a Parisian suburb might live a short distance from the capital, but the gap might seem unbridgeable, for all sorts of reasons. The situation of France’s North African immigrants is particularly interesting to me. The great thing about crime fiction is that it lends itself well to an exploration of social and political issues.

TF: What are you currently reading?

AJ: I recently read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – it was so gripping, I finished it in a heartbeat – and I’ve just finished Michael Robotham’s book The Night Ferry, which I enjoyed. The best crime novel I’ve read in some time is Arab Jazz, by Karim Miské. Currently, I’m reading an amazing collection of short stories by Ryan O’Neill called The Weight of a Human Heart and I’m also about to start Anne Tyler’s new book A Spool of Blue Thread. I’ve also been reading a number of books on France and immigration as part of my research into the third Morel book.

You can follow Anna on Twitter

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