I didn’t know much about Cambodia before I read this book, rather than the 40 year old story of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields (and of that, admittedly, embarrassingly little.) In this book, though, we don’t see a great deal of the Cambodian population, but more of the ex-pat population. But first of all, let me introduce you to our investigator, Inspector Serge Morel. He is on a relaxing holiday in the depths of the countryside of Cambodia when he receives an instruction from his boss in Paris to get to the capital, Pnomh, and aid in the investigation of a French national who has been found murdered. As the victim is the nephew of a government minister, who had been running an NGO in the country, they want this investigation tidied up as quickly and as quietly as possible, and as Morel is in the country, he’s perfect for the job. It’s not just the fact that he’s currently nearby(ish!); his mother was Cambodian and he speaks Khmer, the local language. Already on the case is a local policeman, Sarit, the local doctor, Pran, and a man from the French Embassy, Nizet, who is there to ensure any possible scandal is buried as quickly as possible, in order to save embarrassment to the influential relatives back home. And there is a possibility of scandal: Hugo Quercy, the victim, had booked into a hotel room only 5 minutes from his room – under another name, Jean Dupont. Suspicious in itself. There are no post mortems in Cambodia, so it’s down to the doctor’s best opinion as to his death – a hugely different practice as to what Morel is used to in the West. I don’t think it’s any great spoiler to give away the fact he was beaten to death, as that’s revealed in the first five minutes of the book. To add to his difficulties, Morel finds himself having to work with Sarit, an initially somewhat unmotivated local policeman, who clearly resents the outside interference from the French police and the Embassy, who are adding to his normally easy workload! Then we meet the ex-pat community, containing most of Adam’s circle of friends and colleagues…and possibly the supect(s)? We have Quercy’s grief-stricken wife Florence; his long-time best friend Paul, wife Mariko and their daughter Nora; and the people who work under him at the NGO – mainly Adam and Kate, and also Julia (who appears to be the only character who didn’t regard Hugh as some kind of saint – and wasn’t afraid to say so!) It’s down to Morel and Sarit to decipher the various relationships between them. Who liked and disliked who? Who was sleeping with who? Or was this not about personal relationships at all – had Hugo got mixed up in something dangerous within the notoriously corrupt local politics – for example, the land clearances, which were seeing farmers thrown off their land, and losing their livelihoods, by big corporations, with the government turning a blind eye, for the right price? As he was so committed to human rights, perhaps he’d fallen foul of big companies or the government. There are so many different lines of investigation. Throughout the course of the book, the relationship between Morel and Sarit relaxes considerably, with them even socialising together after Sarit invites his temporary partner to a family wedding. Morel also takes the opportunity to see his mother’s brother and his family, who remained in Cambodia whilst Morel’s mother fled – a visit which is initially difficult, but Morel’s perseverance means eventually a (somewhat reluctant) rapprochement is reached.
So, did I guess “whodunit”? You all know I can’t resist pitting my wits against all the crime authors I review! In this case, I’d have to say, “No chance!” Anna Jaquiery cleverly keeps so many avenues open that really anyone could be the perpetrator. The reveal, when it comes, also makes perfect sense – no “but why on earth would he…”-type stuff I’ve encountered countless times before. The only possible criticism is that all of the investigations is more or less within the ex-pat community – I’d have much preferred a bit more time spent within the Cambodian community. The only taste we get of this is when Morel visits family members, and at the wedding. But of course, had this not been an ex-pat murder, Morel would not have cause to have been called in, so Ms Jaquiery did the best she could in showing us Cambodia. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, this is the second book to feature Inspector Morel. If I tell you I’ve already got hold of a copy of the first in the series, The Lying Down Room, I think that tells you plenty about what I think of Anna Jaquiery and Inspector Morel. It was an easy read, without being at all unintelligent, and hugely enjoyable, with touches of wit peppered throughout the book. All in all, this is a great crime novel, and bodes well for the series. And I’ll be reporting back soon on The Lying Down Room!
With massive thanks, as ever, to Sophie Orme at Mantle Pan MacMillan for the review copy and inclusion in the blog tour, and for my copy of The Lying Down Room too.