A five-year stint with the Territorial Army, work with mine clearance charities in Cambodia and degrees in psychology and creative writing ensured Kate Medina was well equipped to write a novel.
Such an impressive background does not always guarantee success but Medina was more than up to the job.
White Crocodile is a stunning debut, a tense, taut thriller which moves backwards and forwards from the killing fields of Battambang in Cambodia to a brutal murder in the back streets of Manchester.
Using her own experiences in the lethal minefields, Medina brings us the story of a young ex-army woman who travels to Cambodia to unearth the truth about her former husband’s death and finds more than she had bargained for.
Tess Hardy served five years with the Royal Engineers, including three mine-clearing tours of duty in Afghanistan, but all that – and her violent, controlling ex-husband Luke – are firmly in the past now.
Then an early morning call from Luke, who is working as a mine-clearer for a charity in Cambodia, disturbs her peace of mind. There’s something in his voice that she has never heard before… fear. Two weeks later, he’s dead and Tess knows instinctively that it wasn’t an accident.
Against her better judgment and despite knowing little about the country or its beliefs, Tess takes a mine-clearing job with the same charity and heads out to Cambodia.
But clearing the killing fields is not the only danger in Battambang. One of her fellow workers has died in a suspicious mine blast, teenage mothers are disappearing from villages around the minefields while others are being found mutilated and murdered, their babies abandoned.
Local superstitions breed fear that the deaths and disappearances are the work of the mythical White Crocodile which brings judgment, fate and death.
Caught in a web of secrets and lies that stretches all the way from Cambodia to the murder of a prostitute in Manchester and a dark secret from 20 years ago, Tess must find out the truth fast because the ‘crocodile,’ whether imaginary or real, is watching…
Medina’s writing is emotionally charged with her own involvement in a country still paying the heavy price of a bloody, barbaric war in which the ruthless Khmer Rouge organisation committed terrifying atrocities and were responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
She uses the white crocodile myth, which still has currency in modern Cambodia, as the central motif for an exploration of both the work going on there today and the shadowy role of the West in the country’s appalling history.
Through Tess, a vulnerable but brave and determined woman traumatised by domestic violence, we witness the legacy of violence on a massive, political scale and the unimaginable social deprivations of beleaguered communities forced to endure life on the edge.
Unflinching, disturbing and painfully honest, White Crocodile is both a terrific thriller and a window onto a world many of us don’t know much about… but perhaps should.
(Faber, paperback, 12.99)