Mystery of body in a pool

Lawyer-author Claire Tham.

SINGAPORE - A lifetime of enjoying crime novels and noir has led to award-winning Singapore writer Claire Tham penning her thriller.

The Inlet is her first solo book in 10 years; in between, her older works have been anthologised in short story collections.

The new novel begins with the nude body of a karaoke lounge hostess found floating in a rich man's swimming pool.

"I consulted a pathologist at the Health Sciences Authority and asked whether it was credible for her to die the way I put it," says Tham, 46, over coffee.

Famously reticent about her life, she opens up about the nearly 400-page novel, launched last Friday by local imprint Ethos Books.

The story is inspired by a similar real- life incident that made headlines in 2010, when a 24-year-old Chinese national drowned in a swimming pool at a private residence in Sentosa Cove.

Tham was especially touched by Straits Times photojournalist Neo Xiaobin's image-driven reports of how the dead woman's impoverished parents nearly beggared themselves flying to Singapore from China to claim the cremated remains.

"It was very moving, I found it very affecting, this girl who came to a strange country and died," she says. "I couldn't write from her parents' point of view, I know nothing about China, so I wrote about the lives she touched."

The book is driven by the mystery of how and why the hostess died, but it is not a pure potboiler. Rather, it explores hot-button issues such as local anger against immigration and reflects opinions at different levels of society.

"I would love to write a proper thriller but I'll never be able to," the author says with a laugh. "I have no idea how the writers manage to plot as they do and hide the clues."

She devours the works of American crime novelist Michael Connelly, Scottish thriller writer Ian Rankin and Scandinavian noir from writers such as Jo Nesbo.

Even her taste in TV shows runs to gritty crime fare such as Breaking Bad and The Wire. Though it may not be strictly highbrow fare, "their stories are very strong on construction", she explains.

She likes telling good stories and is the first to dismiss her own work if it does not hold up in retrospect. Her first and only novel before The Inlet was a love triangle, Skimming, published in 1999 by the now-defunct Times Editions.

Readers still remember it fondly for its insights into ordinary life, but Tham says: "I don't think it was a very good book, I wouldn't re-read it. I think the focus was too narrow."

She thinks her other works display better technique, including Saving The Rainforest And Other Stories (1993, Times Editions), which won a commendation from the National Book Development Council, as did her debut collection of short stories, Fascist Rock (1992, Times Editions).

The titular story, along with another titled Homecoming, won her two second prizes in the 1984 National Short Story Writing Competition. Other wins include the 1999 and 2001 Golden Point Award writing competitions, both of which came with a $4,000 cash prize and a $6,000 grant to take part in overseas literary events.

Contests spur her to write, she says, which is why so much of her output is in the short story form even though she prefers novels as a reader.

"The prize money was quite attractive. When I won the National Short Story Writing Competition when I was 17, I won enough to buy my first pair of contact lenses. Don't underestimate the power of these contests."

 

Though a lover of literature since her childhood, she read law at Oxford after attending the Convent Of The Holy Infant Jesus and Hwa Chong Junior College. Her mother, a secretary, and father, who worked for Shell, were insistent that she did the practical thing.

On returning to Singapore, she worked at DBS Bank's legal department for a decade before going into private practice.

A partner in a law firm and mother to a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter - her husband works in a bank - she does her writing at night or on weekends.

Perhaps that is why the first draft was rejected by two local publishers she declined to name. "They were quite frank with me, they said it was under-characterised - so I rewrote the whole book," she says. "It was a humbling experience."

As a result, she continued to draft and redraft the book until publisher Fong Hoe Fang, 58, told her she had to stop and let it go to print.

She remains slightly dissatisfied even now. "I think any policeman reading this would find things that are wrong," she says. "I'd like to write a proper thriller some day."

akshitan@sph.com.sg

The Inlet retails at $24.61 at BooksActually, Kinokuniya, Select Books and The French Bookshop.


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