Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Mon, 31/01/2011 – 15:56

When I was eighteen I landed a job as a shitkicker on a Paraburdoo iron ore mine up in the Pilbara. It was a strange gig being eighteen working in a place where for every woman there were probably 150 men, natural beauty of the Karinjini gorge country aside. I saved up some money and headed back to Perth. My plan was to head overseas for a few months surfing and travelling around SE Asia. My only problem was that I only had about 700AUD and I didn’t know anybody anywhere, or anything about anything for that matter.

Never mind, I lobbed up in Bangkok. I didn’t know that there were guidebooks for this kind of thing as I’d never known anybody who’d travelled. I chatted up two French blokes in the line while waiting to get our passports stamped, who, probably reluctantly, let me tag along to their guest house. It was only leaving the airport and heading into Bangkok that I realised what I’d got myself into. I still to this day have no idea where that guest house was because I hardly spent any time there. As soon as we arrived, just gone dusk, I was out the door. Only problem was I didn’t have any baht – never mind – I walked all night just watching, just listening, just walking and hanging around. I got back to my hotel around dawn and slept a few hours then headed out again. This time with some money. Still on foot, no map and not a clue, but found myself before long doing an improvised bar crawl, doing what I knew how to do, play pool and drink and walk to the next place. What a day and night it was, a blur of laughter and intoxication, walking walking and soaking up the freaky atmosphere.

When I woke up the next afternoon I found myself down to 600AUD and still hadn’t paid my hotel bill. I could see the way things were headed. I was going to be broke within the week at this rate. I couldn’t see any way I was going to get work, either, and there was no way I was going back to Oz, not yet. So I took a punt and got on a cheap flight to HK with a mind to travelling to Europe to get a job. I caught a few trains up through China and talked my way into paying for my trans-siberian rail ticket with black-market Yuan. With some cheap local vodka and a fist-sized ball of hash I got on the train to Moscow, managed to sell just about everything I owned on the black-market there and hitched up to northern Norway, where I’d been told I might get work on the fishing boats. Two weeks too early I arrived, so I hitched down to Holland and caught a ferry to London, making it with the equivalent of 20 pounds in my pocket. A couple of weeks sleeping rough at Euston station before I landed my first job, cellar-boy at a busy inner city pub. There I was. On my way. Ten years before the bug wore off, and I returned home.

I only mention all of this because ever since that first day in Bankok I’ve always wondered what might have happened, what life I might have discovered had I stayed there.

And now, thanks to Angela Savage’s wonderful The Half-Child, I have some idea. Jayne Keeney is a PI who apart from her skills as an investigator, whose sharp observations as an outsider fill the pages of this terrific novel (‘his eyes were amber, but not in an attractive way. As if his skull was full of beer’), is well qualified in the areas of ‘drinking, smoking and inappropriate relationships’ (my kind of heroine, exactly.) She is called to investigate the alleged suicide of a young Australian volunteer in a religious organisation, a woman who is described by everyone as being relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, a woman who writes banal ‘g-rated’ letters home to her family. Endeavouring to discover what might have tipped the volunteer over the edge (sorry for the cliche, but she died after falling 14 floors from her hotel), Jayne goes undercover in the charitable organisation that houses children whose parents can’t care for them, and facilitates the adoption of orphans to families from the US, Europe and Australia.

Without giving too much away in terms of the plot, which has a brilliantly surprising conclusion, what Angela Savage does that is particularly interesting, and rewarding in this, her second Jane Keeney novel, is in the area of characterisation and point-of-view. Multiple perspectives are quite common in crime novels, but what Angela Savage has done here is far more ambitious than most. Rather than limiting her narrative to the perspective of Jayne, admittedly an outsider with ‘special access’, the story is told using a perspective that doesn’t so much shift from character to character, as flow. Because of this the novel is much broader in scope, and deeper in insight. Each and every character is fully humanised, fully realised – we not only come to learn more about Thai culture, and the impacts these cultural differences have on the progression of the investigation, but also appreciate the position of Jayne, fluent Thai speaker and unsentimental reader of the streetlife around her, privy to the deeper meanings of the surface behaviour of the people she encounters, as any PI needs to be, but particularly one operating in an another culture. Savage’s use of syntax and diction to differentiate each character, her use of Thai language alongside English, her nailing down of each of the many idioms she uses to both characterise, and equally importantly, move the story forward, is nothing short of brilliant. As is her central character, Jayne Keeney – clear-sighted, tough-minded, unsentimental and worldly-wise, but with a wicked sense of humour and a tender heart.

Available from all good bookshops, I’d recommend The Half-Child to anybody familiar with Thailand and its environs, but also to those who, alas, like myself, have never really been there. For more details visit Angela Savage’s web-page

The Half-Child, Angela Savage, Text, 2010. ‘Jayne (Keeney) has been hired to investigate the alleged suicide of a young Australian woman in a seedy coastal town. But Maryanne Delbeck’s death is not the only mystery awaiting Jayne among Pattaya’s neon signs and go-go bars. While working undercover at the orphanage where Maryanne volunteered, Jayne discovers something far more sinister…’ From the dustjacket.