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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

‘Malice on the Mekong’ by Nancy Swing

Published by Park Place Publications,
4 April 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-943887-13-2

The book is set in the early 1990s. Anjali Rao is the wife of a senior U.N. diplomat, K. B. Rao. A problem during their last posting meant that K.B.'s career had been side-tracked and, to get it back on course, it is essential that he makes a success of his work in Laos. To this end K.B. is travelling the countryside making sure the development projects under his command are completed successfully, while Anjali concentrates on being gracious and non-controversial, and not involving herself with any of the vibrant cultural projects at which she had excelled.

At the start of the book it is Anjali's fiftieth birthday, which she is spending in Vientiane while KB is in the north of the country, overseeing a project. Vientiane is the capital of Laos, situated on the banks of the Mekong River, and is the centre of the diplomatic and expatriate community. Anjali is aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction, partly because K.B. is absent on her birthday but also because of the aimlessness of her life. Her mood is not improved by having to spend the evening at a farewell party for Sophia, whose husband has just concluded a tricky U.N. project. Sophia is beautiful, clever and had been the co-founder of WIVS (Wives in Voluntary Service) and Anjali expects everybody to be at her leaving party, but when she arrives she discovers that only ten guests are present. It seems that Sophia is far less popular than Anjali had thought her. At the end of the party, Sophia gets into her silver sports car and drives away. The next morning her body is found in the Mekong.

Sophia's death is declared an accident but diplomat Cyril Witherspoon rejects this idea and suggests to Anjali that she tries to discover what really happened to Sophia. At first Anjali refuses but the desire to know the truth plays on her mind. Keeping a low profile is extremely tedious and Anjali needs some sort of project to exercise her lively intelligence. Above all, Anjali feels that if she discovers the truth about Sophia, she will also learn the truth about herself and her own life and the lives of the other diplomatic wives, who have to continually 'reinvent' themselves with every new posting. The things she discovers about Sophia are not pleasant and, as Anjali probes deeper she puts herself in perilous situations. Anjali discovers that the malice active in a small, disparate, bored community can be both dangerous and destructive.

Malice on the Mekong is the first novel by an author who has experienced life in Laos and who shows great skill in drawing the reader into this country, its traditions and its people. As well as a clever mystery, she is making a serious social point about the destructiveness of diplomatic life at this time for women who had no official role in the country and who were often prevented, by the host country's restrictions, from gaining professional work in areas they were trained for. All the characters are well-drawn and clearly defined and Anjali, the chocoholic Hindu grandmother turned sleuth, is delightful. She is a character with great personal insight, especially as she struggles to balance the two aspects of her personality: Sita, the dutiful wife, and Devi, whom no man could tame. Malice on the Mekong is a fascinating novel and a very enjoyable read.
Reviewer:  Carol Westron

Nancy Swing has retired after more than 40 years living and working as an independent consultant on five continents. These international experiences enrich her first novel, a mystery set in Laos, where she lived for two years in the early 1990s. Her characters and situations are a fictional blend of the myriad individuals and events which shaped Nancy’s life in overseas settings as diverse as Guyana, India, Italy, Kazakhstan and Somalia. She and her husband, author Russell Sunshine, currently live on California’s Central Coast with five backyard deer who come and go as they please.
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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