Sunday 19 March 2023

Someone is Coming: guest post by T.A. Morton


T.A. Morton is a Singapore-based British-Australian documentary scriptwriter with a keen interest in William Somerset Maugham. She recently completed a masters in crime and thriller writing at Cambridge University. Her debut novella, Someone is Coming, was published late last year. 

Philip Goundry is 93 and living out his days quietly in a care home in England when a young researcher from Singapore arrives, wanting to learn more about his former life in Malaya for the Singapore archives. His memory growing fitful, Philip is torn between wanting to unburden himself and staying silent, as he has done all these years, about the sinister and shocking events of his childhood on a Malayan rubber plantation. The truth, however, has a habit of winning.

Here, Morton discusses the inspiration for Someone is Coming, and the research behind the story...

One evening in Sumatra (around 1921), the famed storyteller W. Somerset Maugham and his partner Gerald Haxton had agreed to dine. Maugham, seated at the table waited patiently for Haxton but he never showed up. Maugham, furious, ate and was about to leave when Haxton entered drunk, apologising. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry I know I am drunk, but I've got a corking good story for you'.

He went on to relay a story to Maugham that was told to him at the bar, which inspired Maugham to write Footprints in the Jungle. This is a short story about the Cartwrights and the death of Mrs Cartwright's first husband, Reggie Bronson, a rubber plantation manager, who was shot dead by her lover after she became pregnant with his child. However, due to a lack of evidence to convict, the Cartwrights get away with it.

So why am I talking about  Footprints in the Jungle? 

Well, as I was starting my masters in crime and thriller writing at Cambridge, I was finishing off a documentary I had written about Maugham and his travels throughout Southeast Asia. I wanted to discover what was behind his Far Eastern tales and uncover the real inspiration. I had made my way through the Singapore national archives listening to countless oral testimonies filled with forgotten stories, searching for any sign of what Maugham had heard or been told. I didn't find much. So, I decided to search through the Singapore newspaper archives. 

I typed plantation manager murder into the search bar. There were a lot of results and I started to go through them slowly.

Two cases immediately grabbed my attention. Both were from November 1916 and although they are a few years off from Maugham's first visit, they would have been ingrained into the expatriate society, as news of such deaths was uncommon in such isolated areas. 

Manager of Mengkibol estate shot dead. Mr Wilson was shot dead at nine this morning… the assailant escaped and got into the jungle and so far has not been captured.

And then... 

Planters Tragic Death. Mr Gilbert Goundry was found dead on Monday morning with a deep wound in the temple and one hand clutching the trigger of a double-barrelled shotgun.

The latter one gave me the shivers: plantation manager committed suicide? Or could it be something else? 

I quickly hit a brick wall as I searched for more details about Goundry. I found one paragraph about him in the Straits Times and that was all. 

I returned to the search results and I found sixteen different cases; sixteen plantation managers murdered between 1900 and 1940. The similarities between their cases were shocking. All were shot in the head, most were robbed, and little was done to investigate the crime. I immediately began to suspect that it could have been something else. A possible madman? Killing for his own sick pleasure.

During the early part of the twentieth century in the Federated Malayan States, there was a lack of a real police force, and due to the heat, bodies were quickly removed and buried without being examined. Criminal gangs were prevalent and were often blamed for unexplained murders. This sense of lawlessness rampant in Malaya during the twentieth century worried colonial officials. In the 1930s, fewer than 30 per cent of murder cases and 13 percent of gang robberies led to an arrest and then conviction. One can only imagine how dangerous and unruly the time was before the 1930s. 

I finished the Maugham documentary and then the pandemic hit and suddenly, after one residency at Cambridge, my masters was deferred for a year. Unlike the rest of my much wiser cohort, I chose not to write my dissertation novel but to instead experiment with what I had uncovered in the archives. I wanted to work with an unreliable narrator - a character that unwittingly misleads readers due to his selective memory recall. During our first residency we had a lecture about protagonists and had discussed how using an unreliable narrator can add eerie tension as the reader isn’t sure if the story being told is the absolute truth. I had never considered making any of my protagonists unreliable before, so I wanted to try it.

I knew it wouldn't be a novel but instead consciously worked with a shorter form, the novella, which is out of favour or about to make a comeback depending on which agent and publisher you talk to. The novella is typically between 10,000 to 40,000 words; most novels are between 70,000 to 120,000 words. I wanted to keep the book small, so the reader must pay close attention to every line.

I couldn't get the article about Gilbert Goundry out of my head. So, I started to write about his possible son, Philip, whose voice first emerged as a young boy, impaired by his immaturity over how to deal with the events he has witnessed, and then as an older man impaired by age and a choice to forget and submerge painful memories. I chose to work with the older Philip as he recalls his childhood. I also wanted to look at the role of memories and how much we can suppress traumatic incidents in our childhood and, with practice, seemingly eliminate them. In a story, memories add depth, complexity, and a sense of mystery and intrigue. I wanted the reader to find out what happened alongside Philip as he gets flashbacks, visions and hears strange voices; we quickly, as readers, realise all isn't what it seems. 

To keep the story as authentic as possible, I researched extensively and looked at the lives of those working on plantations. The rubber trade at the turn of the twentieth century was very volatile, and I found many articles in the archives detailing the hardships many planters endured, including some begging for food and money outside Raffles hotel. I also studied Malayan superstitions and myths. I used some of them to bring a sense of foreboding and mystery, like that of the Pontianak (vampire girl) that Philip recalls seeing on the plantation.

Someone is Coming differs from the detective investigation scenario of more formulaic crime novels, as it follows a non-linear structure that captures the disorienting and disjointed experience of recalling traumatic events. 

What I have learned during writing Someone is Coming and my masters course is that the crime genre is ripe for experimental non-linear structures that allow us as crime writers to be more open in exploring the darker side of the human condition.

DetailsSomeone is Coming is published in paperback by Monsoon Books (UK), priced in local currencies.