My recent review of Anna Jacquiery’s new novel Death in the Rainy Season inspired fellow blogger and Asia-phile PJ (Philip) Coggan to read it and, subsequently, to interview Anna by email for his blog. It’s my great pleasure to reproduce Philip’s original post below. The photo (left), taken when I caught up with Anna in Melbourne recently, is my own.
Anna 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.