White Crocodile by K.T. Medina, book review: Mystery beyond the myths


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few crime novels deserve to be called operatic – in the sense of being larger than life, with emotions etched in the most striking of colours – but K T Medina's remarkable debut certainly qualifies for the adjective.

Painted on the most ambitious of canvases, White Crocodile takes the reader into a Cambodia that suggests the fraught psychological territory of Joseph Conrad's Africa in Heart of Darkness. In Battambang, not all danger is located in the lethal minefields; young mothers are being abducted. Some are discovered gruesomely mutilated, their abandoned babies by their side. In this superstitious society, people live in fear of the 'White Crocodile', a creature that means death for all who encounter it.

In England, Tess Hardy has found some equilibrium in her life after severing relations with her abusive husband Luke. Then she receives a call from Cambodia, where Luke is working as a mine-clearer, and Tess realises he has changed. But there is to be no reconciliation; a fortnight later, Luke is dead.

Despite her better judgement, Tess sets out for the killing fields of Cambodia to find out what happened to him. But just as in Conrad, the source of evil in a barely civilised foreign country is a metaphor for corruption in comfortable England, and a decades-old act of violence at home is to put Tess in peril in the present. And is the white crocodile corporeal rather than mythical?

Medina has the full measure of the sweltering Cambodian locale, and her own experience in the Territorial Army (as well as working for the information group Jane's) has been parleyed into her novel with great skill. The descriptions of the minefields of Cambodia – along with those who undertake the terrifying job of finding and disarming mines and IEDs – demonstrate the author's personal sympathy for this damaged country where thousands of individuals are still maimed and killed by these relics of a bloody war; it might be argued that Medina's anger is the backbone of the novel, lifting it out of the crime category into something more complex and ambitious.

But in fact the real skill of White Crocodile lies in its vulnerable but tenacious heroine Tess Hardy, the perfect conduit for the reader through a novel that is unyielding in its grip.

The myth of the white crocodile is still believed in Cambodia today, and Medina's use of this as the story engine has allowed her to produce both a strongly written thriller and a passionate meditation on the West's exploitative attitude to a benighted country. It would appear that there is yet another accomplished crime writer joining the sizeable throng of names to which attention must be paid.