Death in the Rainy Season | Anna Jaquiery | 2015 | Mantle | 338p | Review copy | Buy the book
Commandant Serge Morel is on holiday in Cambodia in urgent need of peace and calm, which he finds in visiting the country’s beautiful temples at dawn, long before the tourists arrive, and in other solitary pursuits such as origami, done as the rain falls outside his hotel window. For this is Cambodia’s rainy season and to Serge Morel, half French-half Cambodian, it is perfect. But the calm is shattered when his commander in Paris calls with an urgent task. Frenchman Hugo Quercy, a nephew of a senior government minister, has been found murdered in a hotel room in Phnom Penh. He had been staying there, in a hotel just five minutes from his own home, under an assumed name. Quercy’s family and the French police (in France and those based at the French embassy in Cambodia) suspect scandal. Morel is despatched to Phnom Penh where he is instructed to work with the local police to find out why Quercy, a popular, charismatic man and well-respected head of a humanitarian organisation, has been so brutally and mysteriously murdered.
Serge Morel is faced with a difficult task, not helped by the polite reticence of the local police to reveal all they know as well as the lack of forensic techniques – there can be no post mortem. The police refuse to admit that the crime can be anything other than a personally motivated murder, committed by a foreigner. But the clues suggest that there may be more to it than that. While Morel is continually prodded for results by his superiors in Paris, he becomes immersed in the lives of the family, friends and colleagues of Hugo Quercy, all of them suffering with the aftermath of Hugo’s loss, highlighting how sensitive this case is, how personal Morel’s questions must be.
I cannot praise Death in the Rainy Season enough. It’s difficult to know what to commend the most – the fascinatingly intricate and sensitive mystery, the rich array of personalities that Morel must get to know, whose lives he must turn upside down, or the complex and mesmerising character of Serge Morel himself. This thoughtful and clever man carries so much on his shoulder, he is humane and kind, and he is calmly ruthless in his determination to uncover the truth from among all these secrets.
And then there is Cambodia itself. The character of Cambodia contributes to making this one of the most atmospheric mysteries that I have read for months. It is beautiful, steamy, hot and mysterious. But there is also great darkness in its recent past. Morel uses what little spare time he has in Phnom Penh to renew ties with his mother’s family and it is a painful affair. Morel must learn about the crimes committed against his own family on Pol Pot’s Killing Fields just as he must also become aware how this brutality affected Savit, the local police officer he finds so hard to work with, as well as its impact on the country itself. Some dark themes are explored in Death in the Rainy Season, not all of them belonging to the past, and they cast a shadow over the lives of everyone in this novel. More and more is revealed about past and present as the novel unravels its secrets.
Finally, there is Anna Jaquiery’s writing, which is clear, evocative and beautiful. Characters, setting and mystery are deftly brought to life around us. I found Death in the Rainy Season to be a most compelling and immersive read, hard to put down and hard not to think about. A book of the year for me, without doubt.
I have yet to read the previous novel, The Lying Down Room, although I’ll be sure to correct that soon, and think Death in the Rainy Season stands very well on its own, with no spoilers for the earlier novel.