Most Australians are probably not aware that crocodiles only kill bad people. But it is one of the commonly held beliefs in Timor-Leste (East Timor), as revealed by Chris McGillion in the first of his intriguing new crime series, The Crocodile’s Kill. This book is fascinating not just for its plot, involving murder and child abduction, but for its location and cultural focus. Many Australians feel an affinity with Timor-Leste, going back to the Second World War, despite our government’s double dealings with that young country in more recent years.
McGillion visits Timor-Leste regularly and has a strong association with it through his work in advising and researching on initiatives in media and communications related to agriculture. He has a solid track record in journalism, has published a number of non-fiction books on a variety of topics and has been a university lecturer in Australia. This is his first venture into crime writing and shapes as a great debut into a field in which Australians are now acquiring a well-earned reputation.
During the Indonesian occupation, more than 4,000 Timorese children were taken from their homes either by force or deception and ended up in domestic or sexual slavery in various parts of Indonesia. In more recent times, poor economic conditions and limited educational opportunities have also meant that Timorese children are vulnerable to trafficking. There is a worldwide trade in children known as ‘child laundering’ and one aspect of that trade is the illegal adoption of babies into affluent Western countries. This is where the book starts.
With experience in the area and having overstepped the boundaries in her treatment of a child sex offender in the USA, FBI agent Sara Carter is unwillingly seconded to Interpol and sent to Timor-Leste to assist the national police with reported child abductions. She is teamed up with local policeman Vincintino Cordero, who was educated and brought up in Australia after his family fled the Indonesian invasion.
Neither of them is up to speed on the language or the customs and beliefs that prevail in the remote border areas of Timor-Leste, but with the inclusion of Estefana dos Carvalho, a local and ambitious young policewoman, the team is complete and on the trail. The story has a great pace and some unexpected twists and turns as they navigate through culture, corruption and history, uncovering both sinister and heroic characters along the way.
Timor-Leste’s creation myth
A villager is ritually killed and he and his hut are set on fire. He is suspected of being a demon. Then when local police kill a crocodile, they find human remains inside. The crocodile isn’t the killer, just fortunate enough to have been delivered a meal. The crocodile probably only feasted on the body because it was a bad person. Rumors and suspicions are running rife and villagers are fearful. They are connecting the disappearance of the babies to retribution by demons for the destruction of land by developers, not to mention the killing of crocodiles. Crocodiles have a sacred status in Timor-Leste and are central to the country’s creation myth. The shape of the island is said to resemble a crocodile. Nothing good can come from killing a crocodile.
There is pressure on the team to solve the case before villagers take matters into their own hands. Cultural and personal differences in the investigating team create tensions and, for a time, look like getting them nowhere. Sarah Carter carries personal baggage, having not resolved her feelings over the death of her father when he tried to stop her sister’s abduction when young.
It’s the reason she became a police officer and the reason for the way she operates – act fast and direct and give no quarter – not exactly the Timorese way. How they learn to work together and understand and appreciate cultural differences is a fascinating aspect of the book. I’m pleased to say that exploring and sharing Timorese food is key to the development of their cohesion, cooperation and detective work.
Some readers may be familiar with Colin Cotterill’s character, Dr. Siri Paiboun and the series of books involving the crime busting exploits of that Lao national coroner. In a similar way to The Crocodile’s Kill with Timor-Leste, they give an insight into the ethos, history and culture of Laos. If you’ve ever been to Laos, you can’t help noticing that those books are for sale at all the airports and every tourist shop in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I’m predicting that the same may happen for Chris McGillion’s Timor-Leste crime series. If you’re flying into Dili, check out if the book is available at the airport.
It looks like the team will soon be back in action in Timor-Leste and I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next book in the crime series. In the meantime, I definitely won’t be smiling at a crocodile.
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