For a number of reasons, the most significant being the need to focus my reading and writing time on my PhD while also making a living, I made it a rule not to do any unpaid reviewing this year. But a rule is worth nothing unless you break it now and then, and this week I’m making an exception for an exceptional novel.
Death in the Rainy Season is Melbourne-based writer Anna Jaquiery’s follow up to her 2014 debut, The Lying-Down Room. Both novels feature Parisian detective Commandant Serge Morel, whose late mother was Cambodian, and whose French father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. (Jaquiery, herself of French-Malaysian descent, spent time in Cambodia as a child prior to 1975). Where the first novel, set in France, was a slow burner, Death in the Rainy Season, set in Cambodia, sets a cracking pace from the first chapter and doesn’t let up.
Morel is on leave, visiting the Angkor temples of Siem Reap, when Frenchman Hugo Quercy is murdered in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Quercy, the charismatic and outspoken head of a well-respected non-government organisation (NGO), also happens to be the nephew of the French Interior Minister. Morel is dispatched by his boss to join forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit in investigating Quercy’s death.
Quercy was found brutally beaten to death, in a hotel room that he’s checked into under a false name. He leaves behind a pregnant wife, Florence; close friends Paul and Mariko Arda, who followed him to Cambodia from France; a team of dedicated, if envious staff; and any number of enemies. Sarit is keen to see the case explained as ‘a settling of accounts between barang. Westerners.’ But it emerges that Quercy has been both pursuing foreign paedophiles and investigating forced evictions, which multiples the number of possible motives for his murder, at least as far as Morel is concerned.
There is so much to like about this book. The atmosphere, culture and politics of the Cambodian setting are vividly brought to life. A place where ‘the rain came with a sudden roar’, so heavy it made ‘the world disappear’. Where ‘people could be matter of fact about flesh and blood, but spirits were another matter’. Where activists are shot with impunity and the government is accused of ‘selling the country bit by bit’.
The novel also sheds a revealing light on NGO culture, examining the complex mix of evangelism and ego, altruism and avoidance, that draws people to this line of work. As someone previously immersed in that world, for me Jaquiery’s observations are authentic and insightful.
Morel is a wonderful character, flawed by in ways atypical of crime fiction detectives (he drinks in moderation and has given up smoking). He is reflective, astute, and inclined to melancholy, dealing with the secrets and lies of his own family, as well as Hugo Quercy’s.
Compelling, clever and captivating, Death in the Rainy Season is a deeply satisfying read. Highly recommended.
Published in Australia by PanMacmillan, released April 2015.