KT Medina’s debut novel, a murder mystery that uncovers the exploitation and betrayal in the ravaged minefields of rural Cambodia, is a riveting read.
Author: KT Medina
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 378 pages, fiction
A gripping mystery of murder, exploitation and betrayal in the ravaged minefields of rural Cambodia.
Contrary to what you may think, there are no actual white crocodiles in the book White Crocodile. Those expecting a tale of reptilian carnage may therefore be disappointed. The actual villain in K.T. Medina’s debut novel proves to be all human, yet far more sinister and terrifying than any crocodile could ever dream of being.
White Crocodile is the tale of Tess Hardy, an emotionally damaged mine clearer trying to put the memory of her violent ex-husband, Luke, behind her. One day, she receives an unexpected phone call from him from Cambodia, where he is working with a humanitarian mine clearance charity. There is a tone of fear in his voice she has never heard before.
Two weeks later, he suddenly ends up dead. An accident? Or something worse? Tess travels to Cambodia, a country of strange beliefs and ever present danger. Sinister things are afoot: teenage mothers are disappearing from villages near the minefields, while others are being found mutilated and murdered, their babies abandoned.
Worst of all are all the whispers of the White Crocodile, a mythical beast that is said to bring death to all who meet it. The more Tess investigates, the more secrets and lies she uncovers, as she unravels a dark plot that stretches all the way to another murder in England, and a dark secret from over 20 years ago. Worst of all, however, is that the White Crocodile may be more connected to her than she thinks.
Medina’s novel is a tightly plotted tale of razor-sharp suspense and shocking twists. The author blends fiction and facts admirably, combining fine story-telling skills with true-life observations of Cambodia to create a highly engrossing story.
Medina certainly writes what she knows: the author was previously a Troop Commander in the Royal Engineers. She also worked at Jane’s Information Group, where she was responsible for providing information on small arms, armour, artillery and land mines to global militaries. There, she spent time in Cambodia, working with mine clearance charities in Battambang to provide them with information to help mine clearers deal with complex mines more safely in the field.
It is no surprise, therefore, that some of her novel’s most engaging scenes take place at Cambodian minefields. Mine clearing is depicted as a psychological game with intensely dangerous stakes, and discovering how mine clearers go about this deadly process is worth the price of the book by itself.
White Crocodile features a rich and fascinating cast: stand-outs include the brooding Alex, Tess’s co-worker who has baggage of his own, and Bob McSween, their outspoken and high-strung Glaswegian supervisor. Tess is also a fine protagonist: a strong-willed yet sensitive woman valiantly trying to face both her dark past and the horrors happening around her.
Medina also gives several point-of-view chapters to the Cambodian villagers affected by the White Crocodile: these parts, while short, contribute some of the most poignant moments of the novel.
The only nitpick some may have with White Crocodile is its narrative, which can seem unfocused. Its story leaps all over the place, going from present Cambodia to the perspective of a minor character never seen again, then to Tess’s backstory ten months ago, then to England where a detective is investigating a mysterious murder, and so on.
While these excursions help flesh out the world of the novel, the constant scene jumping can occasionally give rise to a feeling of being disjointed.
The novel is darkest in the parts dealing with exploitation. This major theme runs deep all throughout the book, whether it is Tess’s recollections of her toxic relationship with Luke, or the relentless oppression of Cambodian women, particularly by those supposed to help them.
Indeed, one of the most memorable parts of White Crocodile is its depiction of the Cambodian mine clearance agency Tess joins. While its aims may be humanitarian, some of its staff’s agendas are certainly not.
“You go to Phnom Penh and you see 50-year-old Western men with 11-year-old Khmer girls,” one character tells Tess. “Many of these men are from aid agencies. Their wives will be back home – their 11-year-old daughters thinking Daddy is off saving the world.”
“What makes people behave like that? Lack of respect. Power. Opportunity – knowing they can behave in a way that they wouldn’t in their own countries and get away with it.(…) I’m working hard to help them, so perhaps... perhaps I could take a little for myself.”
White Crocodile also revels in plot twists. The final chapters are a masterclass of misdirection, as Medina baits and switches the reveal of the villain’s secret identity several times. The final twist may come across as a little soap opera: thematically, however, it is a good (if slightly over-the-top) way to conclude this story.
All in all, White Crocodile is an admirable debut novel. Medina’s plots and characters are certainly captivating, and it will be interesting to see what she writes next.