Drawing on years of experience in the British armed forces, debut author K.T. Medina delivers a striking thriller that bores into the dark heart of postwar Cambodia, fraught with poverty and superstition. Her heroine descends into the killing fields in search of her husband’s killer—but as Medina reveals in the essay below, evil goes much deeper than murder.
To my parents’ dismay, I was not a normal girl. I dressed in army fatigues, sported a crew cut and used to line my teddy bears up at either end of the lounge and send them into battle. My favorite game was to traverse blocks purely by climbing over fences, cutting through people’s gardens, sneaking through their open back doors and slipping out the front, unnoticed. My mother and father despaired, entirely nonplussed. However, my interest in all things military probably developed from the hours I spent hiding behind the sofa, when I was supposed to be asleep, watching such World War II classics as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen through my father’s legs.
When I went to university to study psychology, it felt like a natural progression to join the Territorial Army, where I spent time both in the Infantry and in the Royal Engineers, rising to Troop Commander. On leaving university, I joined Jane’s Information Group, the world’s leading publisher of defense intelligence information. It was whilst working at Jane’s, responsible for land-based weapons, that I was inspired to write my debut thriller, White Crocodile. As part of that role, I spent a few weeks in the minefields of northern Cambodia, working alongside professional mine clearers from two clearance charities, Cambodian Mine Action Centre and Mines Advisory Group. I was privileged to get to know both Western and Khmer mine clearers and to spend time talking with Khmers who had lost limbs to land mines. I also visited many of the locations that appear in White Crocodile, including the great swathes of minefields that dominate the region and the Red Cross Hospital for the victims of land mines, where the novel’s fictional Dr Ung saves lives and rehabilitates. 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.
"I wanted to use the power of fiction to take readers on an unforgettable journey to this dark and disturbing place."
Cambodia is a visually beautiful country of emerald green paddy fields and ochre earth; the people are friendly and the majority kind; but its traumatic history, including five years of mass genocide under the Khmer Rouge, depicted in the famous film The Killing Fields, casts an indelible shadow. Cambodia is still incredibly poor and the government corrupt, building presidential palaces and grand government buildings while the majority of the population live in unimaginable deprivation and hardship. There is no social security, and unless people make a living for themselves and their families, they quite literally starve. The presence of six million land mines, buried mainly in the northwest region around Battambang where White Crocodile is set, makes the job of survival even harder.
Off the tourist trail, Cambodia is a heartbreaking place to visit that left a huge and lasting impression on me. On coming home, back to England and the privileges that I enjoy here in the West, I felt very strongly that I wanted to use the power of fiction to take readers on an unforgettable journey to this dark and disturbing place—a journey that would have them wanting to read, without pause, until the very last page.
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 and abuse 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.
I am drawn to people who have a different psychology from my own, whether in terms of mass cultural beliefs, such as in Cambodia where the white crocodile signifies death, or with individuals who, perhaps because of their upbringing or life experiences, display an abnormal psychology. The heroine of White Crocodile is Tess Hardy, an ex-British Army combat engineer and mine clearer who, against her better judgment, travels to Cambodia to discover the truth behind the death of her violent husband Luke. 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 have always loved to read and write, and much of my childhood was spent immersed in stories. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was one of my early favorites, and in common with many other tomboys, I wanted to be George. I am still an avid crime and thriller reader, 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.
K.T. Medina lives in London with her husband and three children.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of White Crocodile.
This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.