Death in the Rainy Season (Anna Jaquiery, MacMillan, 2015)

51vR6oZ3MGLAnna Jaquiery’s Death in the Rainy Season (the link is to her Amazon Kindle page) opens with a break-in in a quiet Phnom Penh street, followed by a murder. The victim of both is Hugo Quercy,  the brilliant and well-regarded head of an NGO called Kids at Risk. He’s also the nephew of the French Interior Minister, who is concerned there may be a scandal attached. The minister wants this settled as quickly and quietly as possible. Fortunately Police Commandant Serge Morel is holidaying in Cambodia, and so the Commandant, much against his wishes, is ordered to “assist” the local police, his task rendered no easier by his Cambodian opposite number’s apparent lack of interest in the case.

Without giving anything away, the list of suspects and motives Morel faces is huge: Quercy has been investigating local pedophiles, who might therefore have wanted to remove him; all is not well between Quercy and his wife; and Quercy has recently branched out into gathering evidence about land-grabbing, which could have earned him enemies in high places (and which would, of course, explain the unwillingness of the Cambodian police to take much interest in the case).  This is Anna’s second novel, following The Lying Down Room, which also featured the melancholic, paper-folding Morel. I asked Anna some questions by email.
  1. Anna, can you tell us a bit about yourself – your life seems to have been quite adventurous. Has it influenced your decision to write about exotic places?

There’s definitely a link there! My mother is French and my father is a Malaysian-Indian. He was a diplomat and we moved around a great deal – every three years or so. I grew up in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand and Russia. After I finished school (in Moscow), I moved to France for my university studies. I’ve worked as a journalist in a few places. We’ve been in Australia for seven years and are actually in the process of moving again, to New Zealand.

  1. What drew you to take Phnom Penh as the setting for “Death in the Rainy Season”? (I was very struck, incidentally, by the way you made the city real – the details are absolutely spot-on).

Thank you, I’m so glad you think so. I’m no expert on Cambodia. But I’ve always had an interest in its history. I lived in Phnom Penh as a child and we left in the early part of 1975, before the Khmer Rouge entered the city. I was too young to remember any of it, but I grew up with my parents’ nostalgia about the place. I’ve been there a few times and during my last visit two years ago, I made the most of every minute, absorbing what I saw – I walked around Phnom Penh for hours on end – and listening to the stories people told me about their experiences there. Phnom Penh has a special place in my heart and I wanted to bring it to life in my book.

  1. Serge Morel is not quite the conventional noir detective – as Angela Savage pointed out in her review, he drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, and is inclined to melancholy. He also has origami for his hobby, surely a fictional first.

It’s true I can’t think of any other detective who does origami in their spare time…! It wasn’t something I planned. As I developed Morel’s character, it eventually came to me that this would be something he’d be good at and would enjoy doing. It seemed to suit his character (as I see him). Origami, it seems to me, requires patience and precision, a predilection for solitude and introspection, as well as a poetic nature.

  1. It’s been said that the elements of story-telling are plot, character, setting and tone (I got the list from Tim Hallinan’s interview with Dana King) – would you agree? How do see them in your own writing?

Character comes first, without a doubt. Simply put, if readers feel invested in the characters in a story, they will want to know what happens next. When I give up on a book it’s usually because the characters seem lifeless or one-dimensional. Setting is also very important to me. P.D James once said it was what came first for her and it’s certainly one of the first things I think about when I start working on a new book. Generally speaking, I tend to start with a premise – a question – and the plot flows from that. Tone, or style, is something you develop over time, by writing and gradually finding your own voice.

  1. I gather you were quite meticulous in getting the pathology of your murder right (the state of poor Hugo’s skull certainly sounded convincing to me!) Death in the Rainy Season also touches on pedophile rings in Cambodia, land-grabbing, and the inner dynamics of the aid industry. Can you tell us a little about your research?

I spend quite a bit of time on research. With Death in the Rainy Season, I did a great deal of reading and talked to people who lived in Cambodia, including locals, academics and aid workers. I visited Phnom Penh and spent several days just walking everywhere, taking things in. I also keep in touch with people who are experts in their fields, whether it’s paper folding, policing or forensics.

  1. Who and what have been influences on your work? What writers do you admire most?

It’s an eclectic list. I have often said that two leading influences are Graham Greene and Anton Chekhov. I enjoy many authors of Indian origin (this may have something to do with my Malaysian-Indian background), including Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I admire writers like Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Colm Tóibín. As far as crime fiction goes, I’m a big fan of Denise Mina’s books. Aside from hers, recent crime novels I’ve also loved include Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night and Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home.

Phnom Penh the Dangerous


Back in 1994, so I’m told, backpackers in Ho Chi Minh City were sitting round in cafes discussing the latest news out of Cambodia and cancelling their onward travel. Too dangerous. Said one:

“I decided not to go to Cambodia after reading an article

in the Travel Section of the Independent in Melbourne [Australia] about the kidnappings of three westerners. The article advised against travel in Cambodia so I am spending more time in Vietnam.”

Those three kidnapped tourists were, unfortunately, later murdered by the Khmer Rouge. (Laura Jean McKay’s “Holiday in Cambodia” is partly based on the incident and well worth reading.

Cambodia, of course, thrives on its reputation for danger. Backpackers get the thrill of having walked down the Riverside and survived. But is it dangerous, really?

Surprise surprise: Interior Minister Sar Kheng says yes, it really is, though he’s talking about petty crime, not the threat of kidnapping and murder. In fact he likens PP to HCMC of yore, which apparently was once a pretty crime-ridden place (so were all those backpackers sitting in the midst of a crime wave and not noticing?)

According to figures released by City Hall, in 2014 Phnom Penh Municipal Police dealt with 564 cases – including misdemeanours and felonies – and arrested 762 suspects.

Un Sam An, Wat Phnom commune police chief, who was at yesterday’s meeting, agreed that street crime was a big issue, but said authorities were already doing their best to address it.

“My police officials make an effort to crack down on robberies and street thefts. We had an almost 100 per cent success rate in 2014,” he claimed. “Most of the thefts happen on Cambodian people, not foreigners.”

But Kheng said that foreigners are often victims of crime, and said French nationals in particular regularly ask why they are targeted.


Simon Gipson blog

Bag-snatchers and pickpockets seem to be the most common complaints. Locals and tourists seem to be equally the targets. Beware when using motos and tuktuks. Some tips for tuktuks:

  • Some tuk-tuk and motodop drivers are alleged to be involved in organised crime, and will take you directly to an unknown place. Be careful, and get recommendations on tuk-tuk drivers who are trustworthy from hotels, friends and colleagues. (Comment: the vast majority of tuktuk and moto drivers are not involved in organised crime, but the advice is still useful – just don’t get paranoid, like this lady did).
  • Never ride in a tuk-tuk late at night and alone. (Comment: I frequently ride in tuktuks and on motos alone at night, but I’m careful where I take them from).
  • Don’t leave bags or other goods open to snatchers on motos. Place your bag in the middle of the seat and close to you when in a tuk-tuk. (Absolutely right).
  • When riding a motodop, put the bag or purse between you and the driver. (Better still, take a tuktuk – not just for theft protection, but because motos are really bad if you’re in a traffic accident).
  • Don’t wear too much jewellery, and don’t carry unnecessary valuables and cash. (Or hide your cash).

Don’t bother reporting the incident to the police – you’ll pay tea-money and still nothing will happen. Anyway, there are no police around after3 5 o’clock. Don’t try to fight muggers and bag-snatchers – the often operate in gangs, and can be violent.

Boats possessed by spirits


A post on the racing boats used in the annual Water Festival. Or I should say the so-called Water Festival – in Khmer it’s called Bon Om Touk, which means Festival Row Boat – in other words, it’s a boatrace festival. Maybe 200 boats and a million people from all over the country gather in Phnom Penh for a program of races over three days in October or November, presided over by the king, and much honour accrues to the winning team.


Boat Festival in Phnom Penh

But it’s more than just a boat race, it has religious overtones. The boats represent villages, and are stored in the village monastery. As the boat festival nears, the monastery neak ta (spirit) is asked to help the village team, but that’s not enough: the neak ta can’t travel, he’s bound to the monastery,and the boat is off to Phnom Penh. What to do?


Monastic neak ta shrine at a village near Phnom Penh

So the village gets a powerful spirit called a bray to inhabit the boat for the duration of the festival. The bray is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth or while pregnant – she’s inconsolable, and grief makes her evil. Most spirits are essentially neutral, but the bray goes out of her way to cause harm, especially miscarriages, for which reason pregnant women should not go near the village racing boat. But she can be tamed, by the village kru arak and kru baomey (types of shaman), and the monks.

And so a bray is enticed into the boat. This is essential because all the other villages will have their bray, and without protection these bray will attack the rowers. So while the rowers battle it out on the river, the bray also do invisible battle, fighting off the attacks of the rival spirits to protect their team.

Below are some photos of the a bray-shrine and some offerings to the bray on the riverbank at Siem Reap at the recent boat festival there – the festival is held in several towns around the country, although Phnom Penh is the biggest because of the king.

_DSF6183 _DSF6190 _DSF6182

Barefoot Diplomats


Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

January 1979. The Vietnamese are closing in on Phnom Penh. A messenger from the Khmer Rouge leadership arrives at the Chinese embassy: the KR army has collapsed, there’s nothing between the Vietnamese and the capital. Prepare to evacuate within four hours. Papers are burnt, food prepared, and at midnight a convoy of diplomats, not only Chinese but the Yugoslavs, Burmese and others (in truth not that many) leaves the city headed for Battambang. Once there a new message from the KR government: the threat has been overstated, please return to Phnom Penh. Most of the embassies decline the invitation, but recognising that his duty is to represent Beijing to his hosts, the ambassador and his staff return to PP  immediately. The date is January 4.

The situation in Phnom Penh continues to worsen. Artillery can be heard in the distance and Vietnamese reconnaissance aircraft are overhead. On January 6 a Chinese Boeing 707 arrives. There are 180 people at the airport pleading for seats, among them Prince Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and some two dozen members of the royal household. The aircraft can safely carry only 150.

Now read on.

That’s just the first five pages of this document, The Collapse of the Pol Pot Regime, January-April 1979. It’s the story of the Chinese embassy as they retreated with the KR into the Cardamom Mountains in the face of PARVN (Peoples Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and was written, I gather, as part of an internal history of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The  Chinese tried to stay with Pol Pot and keep on being an embassy, but in April they crossed the border into Thailand. It’s an extraordinary story – you’ve heard of barefoot doctors, but here’s barefoot diplomats.

Nice blogspot here with photos of Phnom Penh when it fell to the PARVN – this is what the Chinese would have seen as they left the city. The photos used here are from another blog, Travis J Thompson’s Ten Pics a Day – unfortunately I don’t know who took the actual pics, especially that one at the top.

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979


Work-in-progress: free chapter

This is the first chapter of my next Phnom Penh novel, to be titled Music for Hungry Ghosts, featuring a ghost who likes the blues, a psycho serial killer, and the search for the perfect spare ribs.

1. the ghost IN CIVILISATION

Red sleeps in the eye of the storm. Civilisation swings in a black wind, thunder rolls and lightning flashes, but Red snores beneath a cotton blanket, long silences between snorkels and snuffles, oblivious to the celestial chaos.

Civilisation is a bistro on Phnom Penh’s Riverside, and Red is its day-and-night guard, parker of motorbikes, mover-on of street urchins, and general gofer. His responsibilities have enlarged in recent times, because four months ago his boss, Mr Burl, bought the lease on the Chinese undertaker next door, the undertaker himself being recently defunct. Red was unhappy with that, as were all the staff to varying degrees, but the lease was cheap and Mr Burl was a foreigner who couldn’t be expected to understand about ghosts. So, spending money he didn’t have and couldn’t afford, Mr Burl knocked down the dividing wall between coffee-shop and coffin-shop, and half Red’s charge is now the possible home of unquiet spirits.

Somewhere in the wet and windy darkness a dog barks, but it can’t disturb Red’s slumbers, for Mr Burl has put a Buddha in the corner. Buddha will handle the dead, and Red will look after the rest.

In his previous career Red was a kick-boxer, possibly the worst in Cambodia. Guarding Civilisation beats kick-boxing hands down: he’s got a blue uniform with roll-down sleeves that button at the wrists, all his major decisions are made for him by Champei the head girl, who’s a little bit bossy and reminds him of his big sister, and nobody tries to kick him in the nuts. Plus serious black boots to wear by day, a folding bed to sleep on at night, and and a day off every month to go home to his village. So Red should be happy, but behind his flickering eyelids all is not well.

Red is dreaming.

It began as a dream of a certain girl from the village, a girl with teeth like the leaves of the tamarind tree, only white instead of green (Red never was very good at similes), but now he sees instead the figure of a man. The figure is made of green sticks. It has neither skin nor organs, just bone-sticks, and its head is a ball like a coconut, green as its green legs and green arms and yellow-green ribs, but smooth and lipless and tongueless. Its eyes are two black holes,  and it floats within a black rectangular pit that gapes like the mouth, and somehow Red knows the pit is bottomless. Hunger radiates from it, and a pain that presses his soul.

Or perhaps it’s his bladder.

Red is suddenly awake. The dream vanishes instantly, leaving only a nameless unease. He’s sweating, and his heart races. There’s no clock in the bistro, but the glowing face of his watch tells him that dawn is near.

But this is no ordinary dawn: today is the first of the fifteen days of Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead, when hell opens its gates and the dead visit the world of men.

Lightning flashes, thunder crashes, a dog howls, and Red pulls the blanket over his head.

Last year, just days after he started work at Civilisation, burglars tried to break in from the back alley. They brought a hammer and chisel and tried to remove the bars from the kitchen window by digging bricks out of the wall. They had a blanket to muffle the sound but hammering bricks is noisy work and luckily he heard them and woke up. Armed only with a frying pan, he chased those evil men off and saved the day. Or night. Mr Burl was very pleased, and Red has been trying to live up to the boss’s high opinion ever since.

Red is ashamed. This is no way for the Hero of Civilisation to behave. He pulls the blanket off his head. He sits up. He cocks his head to favour his good ear, and listens.

Nothing, but for the faint electric buzz of the light-box behind the bar and the irregular gush of water from a broken downpipe in the alley.

Now he’s even more ashamed. He looks around.

Nothing again. Up at the front of the bistro the light-boxes glow orange and strawberry and lemon like sucked candies, showing up the shapes of expensive bottles. The stools and chairs sit upside down on the tables with their legs in the air, waiting for the day to begin.

He thinks of Mr Burl, asleep in his apartment overhead. Red would never dare disturb Mr Burl. Even if the burglars came back, he would phone Champei, and she would phone the boss. Soon Champei will arrive and begin bustling and ordering and he will sweep out the bistro and set the chairs in order.

Champei’s absence reminds Red that he’s alone. But there’s nothing to be afraid of, he tells himself.

And he really does need to empty his bladder.

The toilet is down the corridor to the kitchen. The entrance to the corridor is a black rectangle, and for reasons he can’t quite pin down it fills him with nameless dread.

He steels himself and throws the blanket aside, swings his feet to the floor, and stands erect.

What Red sees next sends him gibbering upstairs to the landing outside Burl’s door, where Champei finds him an hour later, huddled in the corner in the foetal position, his fingers in his mouth to the knuckles and his bladder empty.