This week’s Author Spotlight features Iain Donnelly, aka Steven W. Palmer.
Iain Donnelly is a Scottish expat currently living in Kampot, Cambodia, and writing under the name, Steven W. Palmer.
He relocated to Asia in 2012 after visiting the region for many years. In his working life he has worked as a social worker and counselor in the drugs field, as a social worker and probation officer in criminal justice, and as a DJ and promoter. In Cambodia, he has worked as a sales and marketing manager, the editor of an arts and entertainments magazine, and then as Managing Editor for three magazines published in Cambodia.
In 2017, he set up Saraswati Publishing, a small boutique publisher which aims to discover new Cambodian literary talent, as well as publishing books by himself and other expats. Saraswati also offer content and digital marketing services to the commercial and corporate sectors.
To date, they have released 4 books: Palmer’s first two installments of the Angkor series, Bob Couttie’s Temple of the Leper King, and Mekong Shadows, an anthology of short stories by expat and Cambodian writers. A competition was also held to identify promising new talent, and the two winners feature in the book. What was particularly exciting was that they were both girls, one aged 15, the other 18!
Saraswati have 4 or 5 books planned for 2018, including the third and final installment in Palmer’s Angkor series, which is due for release in May or June. This installment, Angkor Cloth, Angkor Gold, introduces a new character, Sophie Chang, a returning émigré from the USA who has brought her years of police experience in Boston back to her homeland. Sophie will feature in her own series in 2109.
Palmer’s first novel, Electric Irn Bru Acid Test was a coming of age story, very loosely based on his own life, and part of a planned trilogy, The Glas Vegas Chronicles. Part 2 will be released sometime in 2019.
His second novel, Angkor Away moved into his favorite genre; crime/thriller, and has been hailed as part of the Asian noir movement that till recently has been centred on Thailand. Its main character is Chamreun, the Cambodian commander of a special forces unit. Angkor Away is a fast-paced tale of drug dealing, murder, and has an unexpected twist.
The sequel, Angkor Tears, tackled the sensitive subjects of human trafficking and child sexual abuse. It received praise from readers and child protection professionals for the way Palmer handled the subject.
He has also published two shorter works; Turning the Tables; A Love Story for the Chemical Generation – an alternative love story novella set during the heady days of the 1990s Glasgow rave scene, and In My Sights, a short political thriller.
His next book will be Bangkok Drowning, a dystopian sci-fi noir which pays homage to Dashiell Hammett, and which Palmer describes as “Maltese Falcon meets Bladerunner.” After that, he plans to release a diary of a serial killer book which will be based in the US.
In a complete departure from his usual styles, Iain has written a children’s book (Auntie Meng and the Plastic Dam) which is currently being illustrated. The book will focus on two main subjects, literacy and the environment. The plan is to find funding so 10,000 copies can be given away to children across Cambodia.
Outside of writing, Iain still enjoys playing the odd DJ gig, playing an eclectic choice of music from ska to chillout.
His favorite authors are Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, Ian Rankin, and Dashiell Hammet.
Let’s take a look at his book, Angkor Cloth, Angkor Gold.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia and the fall of the Khmer Rouge, an exodus of refugees – and Khmer Rouge soldiers – flees the country and seeks refuge in the many camps that dot the Thai border. For the most part, these camps are chaotic and without any sense of order, and disease and crime are rife.
Amongst the chaos a killer is stalking and murdering young girls they see as having lost their honour by selling their bodies to soldiers and aid workers.
36 years later, and a series of identical crimes hits Phnom Penh, awaking painful memories for the Minister of the Interior, whose sister was one of the victims in the camps so many years ago.
Convinced that it is the same killer, he calls in his trusted troubleshooter, Chamreun, to investigate the current crimes and to discover if it is indeed the same person responsible.
Paired with Sophie Chang, a recently returned émigré with several years’ police experience in Boston, the pair combine their skill sets to try and solve the murders that span decades. As they progress, their investigation comes to the attention of Interpol who link the Asian crimes to a series of unsolved killings in Europe during the 1980s.
And as they work closely together, two very different personalities find themselves getting close in a way that they didn’t expect.
Is it the same killer? And can the pair find justice for the forgotten victims?
The story is told from two perspectives; the diary of the killer from those first days, and the work of Chamreun and Sophie as they race to prevent more deaths.
Here’s an excerpt.
Khao-I-Dang Holding Center, Sa Kaeo Province, Thailand. January, 1980.
I watch my brothers and sisters every day and I despair. There is no light in their eyes, just never-ending shadows and abject surrender. Where is the pride in our history? In our achievements? We pulled ourselves from under the heel of the French and surged into the 1960s in a blaze of creativeness and joy. Yet that joy was soon to evaporate under the searing gaze of poor politics and a bombing campaign by the arrogant Americans. Where are our artists, our musicians, our writers and poets? Dead in some provincial field or killed by Saloth Sar’s mindless followers. What few have survived now hide their talents or have fled for distant lands.
We shall rise again.
I shall rise again.
Yesterday I chose the first piece of cloth that I will cleanse. I have watched her for two weeks now, shamelessly giving her body to anyone who can offer some money or food. My friend tried to defend such actions saying that we must do anything to survive. But without pride, survival is just another word and has no meaning. Without pride we are nothing but empty vessels. Throughout it all I have kept my pride. When I killed the beggar in April of 1975 to disguise my true identity, I felt pride that I would not be discovered and sent to S-21. When I ate whatever I could find in the work camp of Pursat, I was proud that I would survive and help rebuild my nation. When I marched the miles to the border, driven on by the Khmer Rouge dogs as the Vietnamese pressed them harder, I felt pride that I was still alive. And when I cleanse this first piece of cloth, I will feel pride that I am removing a stain from our people.
After a troubled sleep I awake knowing that today I will take another life. That first killing was born out of necessity; the beggar knew who I was and would have given me away to those he saw as liberators and comrades. His death meant I went undiscovered and also gave me a disguise as the Khmer Rouge herded us out of the city in pursuit of their agrarian dream. Dream? More like a nightmare. How can there be any sort of plan when you have killed or exiled all those who knew how to plan? When you are led by a twisted little man who could not pass a simple exam? Whose whole raison d’être came from membership of the pathetic Cercle Marxiste, little boys playing at being revolutionaries. If it had remained a game then how different life would have been, but world events conspired to let the little boy become a man with power, and a man with power is often a very dangerous thing.
You will likely read my words and judge me as much of an animal as Saloth Sar. And if I defended myself by saying that my killing had a purpose and a noble cause at its heart then you would likely reply that Saloth Sar believed this too. But I believe my brothers and sisters will judge me differently. This is the problem with you Westerners in Asia; you try to transpose your belief systems, standards, and philosophy onto an alien land. The difference between East and West is as marked as that between night and day. What separates us is far greater than anything that we have in common. When you finally understand this, then, and only then, will you be close to understanding Asia.
I spend the day much as any other in this small corner of hell. I wait in line to use the pungent latrines. Then I wait in another line to accept the meagre offerings of food that are given out. Then I retire to the small bamboo and thatch hut I share with six other refugees. I have become inured to the smell of my roommates, and indeed the stale sweat aroma of my own body which clings to me like a lover. I retrieve my one true possession here, a much read copy of Nhok Them’s ‘Kulap Pailin’ (The Rose of Pailin). It was one of only two things that I carried with me from Phnom Penh to Pursat and then from Pursat to Khao-I-Dang. The other is this diary that you read just now. And both of these prized possessions I kept carefully hidden on the work farm. If they had been discovered I would have faced at best a beating, at worst death.
My family’s valuables are all buried back in Phnom Penh, waiting for the day I, and any others of my family who may have survived, return to claim what is ours. I have no idea what happened to any of them when the capital fell, so I don’t know which of them are alive or dead. I take solace in the written word to keep the grief at bay, rereading words I know so well, letting the story carry me away from this pitiful existence into a magical tale of courage and integrity, true traits of the Khmer people.
After a small bowl of rice, I again retire to my hut and meditate, preparing myself for the evening’s task. I know what I do is wrong, and I know that I will be consigned to a Naraka once this life term is spent. I think of the words in the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta:
If you, Rahula, are desirous of doing a deed with the body, you should reflect on the deed with the body, thus: That deed which I am desirous of doing with the body is a deed of the body that might conduce to the harm of self and that might conduce to the harm of others and that might conduce to the harm of both; this deed of body is unskilled, its yield is anguish, its result is anguish.
But why should I fear anguish when anguish is all my people have known these last few years? Will my sacrificing of my karma to an endless time in Naraka not be seen as a worthy sacrifice? Are the needs of my nation not greater than those of this worthless soul? The Saccavibhanga Sutta says;
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex. This is called right action.
So my taking a life is no worse than these other worthless souls selling their bodies and soiling the Khmer cloth. If anything, surely my expunging of their sins should be seen as worthy and justified, my actions the erasure of a stain on our futures. I am under no pretence that my actions are innocent, nor that I will escape justice, in this life or the next, but I see what I shall do as a sacred duty, a protection of our very being. One day someone will find this diary and, if no-one has unmasked my crimes by then, a hundred thousand fingers shall point and cry ‘monster’. But what defines a monster? If, as I believe, these soiled pieces of cloth feel shame at their actions when they lie in bed at night, then surely I am giving them some sort of relief. Monsters are defined by our own thoughts, our own moral standards, our own experiences and philosophies. By those parameters I am no monster though I have the intelligence to know that others will not judge me so kindly.
The darkness falls, a lesser darkness than that which has kept our country in shadows these last ten years, and a darkness that will provide me with the mask I need to hide my actions. I know the habits of this creature, how she sleeps much of the day then furtively moves around the camp in the evening, making as many as three rendezvouses before she takes her shameful soul back to her refuge. The first man she meets, a Thai guard, is stationed around 600 metres from my hut, and there are latrines close by. I know that she will go, as she does every night, straight to the latrine to try and exorcise the shame from her body. Tonight I will help her get rid of the shame forever.
I sit in silence, offering prayers for my success and preparing myself for the act to come. Finally, it is time. I leave the hut behind me and move furtively through this great gathering of humanity brought here by inhumanity. In the darkness and flickering shadows of camp fires no-one speaks to you, no-one makes eye contact, every mind is focussed on surviving another day, on marking another day closer returning to our homes. Wrapped around my hand is a length of white cloth I washed and cleaned today. This is the instrument of my cleansing, the instrument of their redemption, the instrument that will herald the rise of Khmer pride once more.
I reach the latrine area and stand motionless in the heavy Thai night, my eyes, now accustomed to the dark, watching for movement coming from the nearby guard station. What seems like hours pass, though I know the reality can be counted in minutes. For a moment I begin to doubt my resolve, to worry that I shall be discovered and my crusade end before it has truly begun. But it is but a moment and my resolve regains control.
Finally, I see movement and a figure makes its way towards where I wait. As it gets closer I realise it is her, the one I have been waiting for, and that the time of her salvation is upon her. I look around me, there is no-one else, everyone having headed to their huts for another night of troubled sleep and tortured dreams. She passes me and looks at me briefly before discounting me as just another exiled soul who is lost in the long night that has lasted since April of 1975.
I begin to breathe deeply, knowing that the act of cleansing is now mere minutes away. It seems as if the night stands still and the camp has become silent, and though I know this is just in my imagination I worry that she will make noise. I must be determined and swift in my actions, I must be finished and gone in a matter of minutes or this ends where it starts.
She exits the latrine and again looks at me, this time with more curiosity as if to wonder if she knew me once. The irony is that she may have known me, may have seen my face in a newspaper or magazine and envied my life. She passes, and now I move with the swiftness of a snake, stepping behind her and unravelling the cloth in one movement. I loop the cloth over her head and pull it tight to muffle any cries of help or despair. She struggles against my grip as anyone would knowing their life is about to end. But even her desperation is no match for the determination I have inside me. Gradually her struggles grow weaker and less violent, and then there is no struggle, her body goes limp under my hold, and I gently lower her to the ground. For a moment I imagine I can see her life-force leave her physical shell but I know this is just in my mind.
Her body lies at my feet, clean once again, and I say a small prayer that she will be reincarnated in a better place and time and that something in her eternal memory remembers her sins in this life and seeks only cleanliness in the next. I lay her hands across her chest and she looks as if she is merely sleeping. To honour what was good in her, I wrap the cloth around her hands and leave her lying there while the night is still empty. Retracing my steps to my hut, I enter, ignoring the snores and dream noises of those people I share with, those people I am so close to in physical terms but so far from in every other way.
I lie in my corner and close my eyes, though it is a long time before sleep finally embraces me. When it does, my dreams are free of violence, free of hate, and I sleep peacefully for the first time in many months.