Mark Jackson, author of new Cambodia-centered detective novel, To Cook a Spider.Photo: Supplied
Mark Bibby Jackson’s first novel* To Cook a Spider is a story of love, murder and betrayal. It is a tale of intrigue that builds from the very outset, making it hard to put down.
The author paints a realistic picture of contemporary Cambodia. Some of the themes will cause many expats to alternately smile and cringe. Newcomers to the Kingdom will get a glimpse of what it can be like for westerners living here.
The central character, British self-made millionaire Don Oake, is lured to Cambodia by an old school friend and his wife, who own a French colonial guesthouse in Battambang. Under instructions from his doctor to undergo complete rest because of a medical condition, Don accepts the invitation, seeing it as an opportunity to recuperate and write his autobiography.
Predictably his sojourn is anything but stress-free as scams and counter-scams unfold. Undoubtedly, expatriates who have lived in Cambodia for a while will well-recognize a certain class of opportunistic cash-strapped westerners who try to survive by exploiting their friends and colleagues.
The book declares itself to be a crime novel through the introduction of a Cambodian police inspector and his dim-witted constable in the opening pages. The author takes time to let the characters develop and for the crime to unfold, tantalizing the reader to press on until the pieces of the puzzle come together.
Phnom Penh After Dark
Although the principal characters are based mainly in Battambang, the story flirts heavily with the seedy side of Phnom Penh nightlife, borrowing the names of many real-life hostess bars between streets 104 and 136.
Rue Pasteur (Street 51) gets an honorable mention with a number of current venues lending authenticity to the story.
Obviously well-researched, this facet of the story is sympathetic to the challenges faced by many of the young ladies that work in the bars, faced with entertaining drunken or drugged “barang-utangs” in order to make a living to support their families.
Gastronomic sub plot
Woven into the fabric of the story is an epicurean thread, which stretches from the kitchen of the Battambang guesthouse, La Maison, to many well-known restaurants in Cambodia’s capital, such as Armand’s, Malis, Romdeng, Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Metro, and further afield to the Black Swan pub in Bangkok.
In so doing, Mark Bibby Jackson doffs his hat to some of Phnom Penh’s real-life celebrity restauranteurs like Luu Meng and pays homage to the Kingdom’s national dishes and ingredients, as well as some of its more obscure ones. (If Mr. Jackson doesn’t get an offer to dine for free at some of these establishments, they are indeed “Gom-rhi” — cheap Charlies).
A quirky inclusion in the book is the recipe for Crispy Tarantulas with Lime and Kampot Black Pepper Dip, courtesy of Romdeng Restaurant. I wonder how many readers will try to recreate it.
Readers looking for a love story should look elsewhere, although an amorous frisson develops between the two central characters, with a promise of what the future might hold for them.
Some readers may find the conclusion of the book a little predictable, with somewhat drawn-out explanations of how the crime unfolded and the role of each of the players in the deed, a la Agatha Christie.
On the whole, though, I found it to be a ripping yarn, made even more believable by embedding many current Phnom Penh entertainment venues and iconic bars into the tale.
The uniquely-named Mark Bibby Jackson (he insists he’s got a birth certificate to prove it) is a freelance journalist, publisher of AsiaLIFE Cambodia, editorial director of ASEAN Forum and Horizon Thailand magazines. After publishing a 64-page novella in 2012 entitled Always, he described himself as “a wanderer who perennially proves that there are some people that do not have a good novel inside of them”.
Perhaps it’s time for Mr. Jackson to write a new chapter in his own life story. His novel stacks up well alongside many best-selling crime novels. To Cook a Spider, published by 360 Degree Media, will be on sale at Monument Books from Oct.1.