White Crocodile is a thriller set in the land minefields of northern Cambodia. When emotionally damaged mine-clearer, Tess Hardy, travels to Cambodia to find out the truth behind her ex-husband’s death, she doesn’t know much about the country or its beliefs. On arrival, she finds that teenage mothers are going missing from villages around the minefields, while others are being found mutilated and murdered, their babies abandoned. And there are whispers about the white crocodile, a mythical beast who brings death to all who meet it. What Tess uncovers in her search for the truth is far more terrifying and globally wide ranging than she could ever have anticipated – a web of lies stretching from Cambodia to another murder in England and a violent secret twenty years old.
Here, author K.T. Medina explains the inspiration for her crime debut, White Crocodile
” The white crocodile represents death in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia – heralding five years of mass genocide, depicted in the famous film The Killing Fields – the white crocodile was seen rising out of the Mekong river. When a family member dies, Cambodians will hang a flag depicting a white crocodile outside their home to signify that death has stolen a loved one. The story of the white crocodile is an ancient one. Five hundred years ago, the only daughter of King Chan Reachea, King of Cambodia, was eaten by a huge white crocodile whilst swimming. The King ordered his men to find the crocodile and kill it. After many weeks of searching, the beast was found in a river far in the North-East of Cambodia, a hundred miles from where the Princess was eaten.
The King killed the crocodile and took the body of his daughter from its stomach. Then he ordered that a Buddhist stupa – a temple – be built to bury his daughter. Twenty innocent young women were executed and buried around the stupa so their souls would haunt the stupa and protect it from destruction for all time. Ever since, Khmers have believed that the white crocodile signifies death.
White Crocodile is my debut novel and is very personal to me. I had the idea for the novel while I was responsible for land-based weapons at Jane’s Information Group, the world’s leading publisher of defence intelligence information. As part of that role, I spent time in Cambodia, working alongside professional mine clearers. I was privileged to be able to get to know both Western and Khmer clearers and to meet Khmers – both adults and children – who had lost limbs to land mines. I also visited many of the locations that appear in White Crocodile, such as the Red Cross Hospital for the victims of land mines. There are huge numbers of amputees in Cambodia, including very young children who, in many cases, thought that the anti-personnel mine they found was a toy. Cambodia is a stunning country, but it is also a tragic one and an unbeatable setting for a dark and disturbing thriller.
White Crocodile is also a story about families: love and hatred, kindness and cruelty, the destructive nature of some families and the long-term damage these families can cause. As part of my degree in psychology, I studied the effect of poor family dynamics on children. The fear and helplessness a child trapped in a severely dysfunctional family feels must be all consuming, and for me was a very powerful emotion to explore in a novel, as was its flip side, intense love and an overwhelming desire to protect. When I had my own children, I realised how incredibly vulnerable they are and what a huge responsibility it is to be a parent, and I tapped into those feelings while writing White Crocodile.
I have a degree in psychology and am very drawn to people who have a different psychology from my own, whether that is in terms of mass cultural beliefs, such as in Cambodia with the white crocodile, or individuals who, perhaps because of their upbringing or life experiences, display an abnormal psychology. The heroine of White Crocodile is Tess Hardy, a ex-British Army combat engineer and mine clearer who, against her better judgment, is drawn to Cambodia to find out the truth behind her violent husband, Luke’s, death. However, whilst Tess is strong, clever and independent, she is also a complex character who has her own very personal demons to deal with.
I am an avid crime and thriller reader, which is why I choose to write in that genre, and I particularly like novels that bring more to me than just a great story. Novels that stay with me long after the last page are those such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner – novels that explore real life trauma through the medium of story and unforgettable characters, and that was my aim with White Crocodile.”
Whilst doing a first degree in Psychology, K. T. Medina joined the Territorial Army, where she spent five years, ending up as a Troop Commander in the Royal Engineers. She has worked in publishing, as Managing Editor, Land Based Weapon Systems, at Jane’s Information Group, as a strategy consultant and as a lecturer at The London School of Economics. She now writes full time. Follow her on Twitter @KatieMedina11
Sometimes, when you read a surfeit of the same genre, books can be quickly put aside, as all to often they begin to repeat the same old tired motifs, and conceits, of crime writing. Sometimes, however, something fresh, new, original and exciting awaits you, and I’m delighted to say that White Crocodile is one such book. Using the backdrop of Battambang in Cambodia, Medina has not only succeeded in constructing a story that adheres to all the tenets of a gripping crime thriller, but also skilfully manipulates this chosen location to integrate the attendant issues of this country still recovering from the ravages of war…
Penned by debut author, K.T. Medina, this book completely defied my expectations in terms of content and the execution of the story. With an incredibly accomplished prose style, that carried the story along beautifully, I felt so closely involved and intimately acquainted with the characters throughout this powerful and moving tale. Tess Hardy is a troubled woman, not only differentiated by her gender in the masculine environment she works in as a mine clearance expert, but also having come out the other side of an abusive relationship- a relationship that is powerfully rendered within the book. As Tess reconciles herself to the breakdown of this relationship, a strange phone call from Luke (her husband), mine clearing in Cambodia, followed swiftly by his death, takes Tess to this strange and dangerous environment. As the link between Luke’s death and a series of young women’s murders in Battambang becomes more evident, Tess finds herself embroiled in not only the day-to-day dangers of her job, in a community steeped in folkloric suspicion, but dark secrets with their roots back in England. Despite the clear and concise drawing of the other characters in the book, it is Tess that is the central lynchpin of the whole story, and she exudes a fascinating combination of emotional strength and weakness throughout. Her utter professionalism as a mine clearer is never in question, holding her own among her male counterparts, but there is a delicious fragility to her at times, that positively impacts on the reader, as she delves deeper into the mystery of the murders, and how the perpetrator of these could be dwelling closer to home than she thinks. As we follow her progress from victim, to defender of these women singled out for death, and finds herself in danger, the reader is utterly immersed in her story, and the mental and emotional strength she attains along the way.
Although, my personal knowledge of Cambodia, has only been accrued through film representations and other fictional books, I felt that the setting, influenced by the author’s own personal experience of the region, was perfect in its rendition. The suffocating heat, the strange belief systems, the heartbreaking visualisations of mine victims, and the prejudices experienced by women within this community, came powerfully to the fore. I was genuinely moved by the plight of the local people, carving out some kind of existence, beleagured by poverty due to the unstable nature of their surrounding environment- an environment whose description Medina carefully balances between both the good and the bad aspects, that impact on the lives of its inhabitants.
I was genuinely impressed by the scope of this crime read, and in common with the best crime writing, I felt that White Crocodile went beyond such a simple label. Packed with colourful description, weighty issues, and an inherent sensitivity to the particular social and economic problems of this region of Cambodia, Medina has achieved something quite special, and more importantly, refreshingly different. A remarkable debut.
Read another review of White Crocodile at Crimepieces
(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)