white-crocodile-jacket‘White Crocodile’, the outstanding debut novel by K. T. Medina, will make you travel to a far-away and disturbing world. The contemporary Cambodia she portrays is a place of extremes: the heat and humidity, the abject poverty of its underclass, brutalised by the Khmer Rouge oppression until 1991 and not much better off under the new regime, the daily risk of maiming and death faced by aid workers and their local helpers as they strive to clear an achingly beautiful countryside of thousands of land-mines, the horrible legacy of revolution and civil war.

The sense of displacement for us readers ‘safe’ in our Western havens is heightened as we become acquainted with the cast of characters. K. T. Medina introduces us to men and women walking a constant tightrope over an abyss, for each of whom the plunge may be into different hells, all however equally monstrous. Torn to pieces by a land-mine, kidnapped, raped and sold into prostitution and slavery, ravaged in a drunk-driving accident in a land where no drink-driving laws exist, or hurled down into the darkest depths of depression.

For the Cambodians living in Battambang, the monster even takes on a metaphysical but no less terrifying countenance: the White Crocodile, a voracious mythological creature they blame for countless tragedies, and in particular for a string of kidnappings and murders of young unattached mothers, and for the tragic accidents, one of them fatal, that have befallen two British aid workers around the mine-infested fields of Koh Kronegh.

To this savage reality flies Tess Hardy, a young woman who has travelled a long way from home before, both geographically and figuratively. Touring Afghanistan on mine-sweeping duties for the British Army. And walking away from a violent husband who savagely loved and beat her in equal measure, until he kicked to death the baby she was carrying, unbeknownst to him. K. T. Medina gives Tess a surprising depth by skilfully portraying her pained ambivalence, her single-mindedness and her softness. Tess has flown to Battambang to take the place in the humanitarian organisation Mine Clearance Trust (MCT) – engaged in land-mine clearance – of none other than her estranged husband Luke, the British aid worker who had been vaporised by an anti-tank mine at Koh Kronegh. A tragic, unfortunate incident, according to his MCT colleagues. The work of the White Crocodile, whisper the Cambodians.

The story is steeped in duplicity and tension. Tess doesn’t reveal her new colleagues she’s Luke’s ex-wife, nor that she had decided to join MCT to look into his death. A scared Luke, far from his customary tough, cocky self, had phoned Tess just a few days before dying, and despite the tragedy that led to their marriage’s break-up, she feel she owes it to him and to herself to understand who or what had scared him so.

Most of the people Tess meets and works with have secrets too: among her MCT colleagues, brooding Alexander Bauer, a Croatian who was close to Luke and may or may not know more than he lets on, and with a past dark enough to make him prone to self-mutilation; Johnny Perrier, carefree and careless son of Shropshire gentry who’s joined MCT apparently in jest, and ends up horribly maimed by another highly unlikely ‘accident’ at the Koh Kronegh minefield; or Tord Jakkleson, MCT’s second-in-command, a Swede who Tess soon discovers is mellowing down his expat life in Cambodia by sexually exploiting young local girls.

Some of the Cambodians Tess has to confront as she tries to unravel the mystery of Luke’s death, of Johnny’s accident and the continuing disappearance of local young mothers (one of whom, a prostitute linked to a slavery ring, turns up murdered in Manchester), are equally as mysterious and duplicitous, their motives further hidden behind South-East Asians customs and mind-sets.

While the story works in a relatively straightforward direction, that of the twin investigations carried out by Tess and Andy Wessex, the Manchester DI leading the quest for the young prostitute’s murder, K. T. Medina is very clever at weaving a rich tapestry of suspense through it. And at portraying the unforgiving reality of life as a mine-clearer in a country as desperately full of contradictions, of beauty and tragedy, as Cambodia is. To pull off this double trick, of weaving a strong if unconventional crime investigation plot (by as unlikely a sleuth as Tess Hardy) into an equally strong story about how to deal with the horrendous legacy of brutality any war leaves behind, takes a lot of literary skill indeed.

Well done K. T. Medina for a great story straddling crime and thriller fiction and mixing it with acute observations about the ravaged world we unheedingly live in. A story featuring  robust characters, a compassionate yet tough heroine and a truly stunning denouement, as frightening and deadly as the mythical white crocodile.