World Crime Atlas: Cambodia

Death in the Rainy Season, by Anna Jaquiery.

Plot: A Frenchman, Hugo Quercy, is found brutally murdered in a hotel room. He was the head of a humanitarian organisation helping to look after street children. Why had he booked into the hotel under an assumed name? What is the significance of his recent investigations of compulsory land grabs? And who broke into his house on the night of the murder?

Where: The story is very largely set in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

The detectives: This is the second book to feature Commander Serge Morel, a Paris-based detective with an unusual enthusiasm for origami. He is assisted this time by a one-legged Cambodian policeman, Chey Sarit.

Sense of Place: The story is set in the monsoon season, the intense rainfall blurring the world, the shifting light and perpetual mugginess making it difficult to keep track of time.

The French-Malaysian author (who left Cambodia as a child not long before the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into barbarism in 1975) describes Phnom Penh as “a vibrant city, full of charm and grace.” But much of this seems to be at risk in the fast-growing modern capital.

“All you have to do is look at this city to see how much has changed,” says one character. “Do you know what I remember of the old Phnom Penh? It was the most beautiful place you could imagine. There was hardly any poverty and we were content. Family was what mattered. From the family, everything flowed. . .Phnom Penh was truly a Cambodian city, a city with its own special Khmer flavour.”

But we are still given a snapshot of unchanging Phnom Penh street life: “Vendors cooking and selling their wares, mechanics and electricians tinkering on engines and television sets outside their repair shops, the parts scattered on the footpath. A young woman emptied a bucket of dirty water on the street, scaring a scabby, pregnant mutt. Another crossed the street, holding aloft a tray of fried spiders.”

The Khmer Rouge revolution, and the horrors of the Killing Fields, are always in the background; every Cambodian in the story is living with the consequences.

Worth reading? Yes. As well as the interesting setting, the story is well-plotted with clearly-visualised characters. I look forward to reading more Morel mysteries.

Our next destination will be Canada. Our book will be The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

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