This week sees the release of the final instalment of the Detective Hawksworth trilogy, Singapore Red. Monsoon publisher Phillip Tatham was instantly intrigued when he first came across the manuscript. As he says, “As a longtime resident of Singapore, I have always been interested in the history of the island and as a publisher I enjoy the historical fiction genre as it enables readers to learn more about the society and politics of a particular place during a specific period in time. I have spent many an evening enjoying a cold beer and a spread of Chinese dishes on tables in the backalleys of Chinatown in Singapore and it is in this rabbit warren of streets that much of William L. Gibson’s work is set. Looking beyond the gaudy tourist tat that now occupies Chinatown, it is not difficult to imagine what the district was like in the 1890s which is when this trilogy is set. In between the colonial elite and the newly arrived singkehs, fresh off the boat from China, was a growing middle class of Eurasians, Indians and Straits Chinese, who occupied administrative positions in the civil service and it is from within these ranks that Detective Hawksworth, a middle-aged British man who was brought up in local Malayan orphanage and who lives with a local lady thus existing on the fringe of colonial society, teaches us about 1890s Singapore as investigates crimes and deals with local superstitions.”
The Detective Hawksworth trilogy has many loyal readers who have been waiting the launch of the final instalment, Singapore Red which is released this week. We were able to catch up with the author to ask him a couple of questions about his books, his inspirations and he shares a little about writing at night and editing when sober…
Monsoon: If possible can you describe the Detective Hawksworth trilogy to your new readers?
WLG: Well, The Star magazine of Malaysia called it a “pulse-pounding thriller” which I hope it is. In a nutshell, you could say it’s a hard-boiled crime series that combines detailed historical settings and local folklore with noir mystery. Set in Singapore and other cities of Malaya in the 19th century, the series features cases of the gimlet-eyed detective, David Hawksworth. The trilogy also engages with deeper questions of colonial power structures and economies as well as 19th century communication and transportation technologies.
Monsoon: What was the inspiration behind the books?
WLG: I lived in Singapore for many years (I’m now happily in Jakarta) in an old police barracks on
Pearl’s Hill with a panoramic view of Chinatown. I was reading lots of local history books and also watching lots of old American and British noir films…I’m also a fan of hard-boiled fiction instead of who-dun-it style mysteries, which I really hate…and was probably drinking too much cheap wine and taking these pain pills you can get over-the-counter in Thailand and one night it just hit me…hey, there’s a book in all this!
Originally the series was going to be set in the 1920s and some scenes were written in that period before I shifted it to the 1890s. By the 1920s Singapore was already fairly civilized while in the 1890s there was a still a sense of a town on the edge of a frontier and more of a sense of anarchy…which fits better with the hard-boiled genre.
Monsoon: Did you plan on writing a trilogy?
WLG: Yes, the inspiration comes from two sources: Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy (also known as The Long Day Wanes) and William Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy. I like the way a story can arc over three books while maintaining an episodic quality so that each book can stand on its own. I also like both the Burgess and Faulkner trilogies because they are rooted in a particular place and time and a particular type of people and because in both trilogies the main character is looking for something that even he doesn’t know he’s looking for until the finale. The sense of detail and atmosphere in both is also superb…I can hope my books can attain such sophistication…
For my books, the trilogy format allows me to have each of the three main ethnic groups of Singapore at the center of the story…roughly Tamil, Malay, and Chinese respectively across the series. That said, if there’s popular interest, there’s plenty more room for more Hawksworth novels.
Monsoon: Do you have a favourite? If so, which book and why?
WLG: I don’t have a favourite but I think the third book is the best written simply because I’d had the most practice by then! The first, Singapore Black has a place in my heart as it kickstarted this trilogy.
Monsoon: Do you have a writing process – do you write in the morning or evening?
WLG:Oh man, well, I prefer to write first thing in the morning after exercise and with coffee but often I get stuck writing in my desk at work so to keep out distractions I wear headphones and listen to electronic jazz, world music or other avant garde noise…basically weird musical wallpaper.
When composing, so to speak, I tend to drink or take other mind altering substances at night after my wife and kid have gone to sleep and keep a pad handy to jot down notes. Sometimes I talk aloud and in character while composing dialogue so I need to be alone in an altered state while working through material before starting at it in the morning. But always, always, always edit sober!
Monsoon: How did you research the background to the series?
WLG: I’ve a doctorate in literature from the University of Leeds and the training I underwent has been invaluable in researching historical fiction. While secondary material like history books or biographies are useful, the most valuable material for me are period travel books and journals especially newspapers. Luckily the National Library of Singapore has digitized their entire archive of 19th century newspapers so searching and reading them is a click away…much more convenient than microfilm. Newspapers are useful not only for learning about period politics but also for local color…advertisements and catch phrases and preoccupations. There’s much material in all three books that I’ve adapted directly from period newspapers. I hope it adds both texture and verisimilitude. By the bye, literary theorists call this a bricolage technique, in case anyone cares…
Monsoon: What are you currently reading?
Currently I’m researching the life and work of a nearly-forgotten French explorer, writer, photographer, and fugitive con-artist who used the pseudonym Alfred Raquez. A scholarly translation with my partner Paul Bruthiuax of Raquez’s 1899 book of his travels through China titled Au Pays Des Pagodes (In the Land of Pagodas) will be published in Spring 2017. Paul and I are now working on Raquez’s second book, Laotian Pages, about his journey through Laos in 1900. Both books will be published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) Press…so now I’m reading a lot of French books about belle epoch Indochina…which is lots of fun…while also engaging in my own detective case of uncovering Raquez’s true identity. It’s either a case of reality mirroring fiction or fiction mirroring reality…I can’t tell which…maybe I should lay off those Thai pain pills…
Singapore Red is available from the 12th January 2017.