Monday 15 January 2024

Tokyo Time, by Dawn Farnham

 T.A. Morton talks to Dawn Farnham about her shift into crime fiction

Though she has now returned to her native Australia, novelist Dawn Farnham is a former expat in Singapore, a place which inspired much of her fiction, including the Straits Quartet, which follows the struggle of two lovers, Charlotte Macleod, sister of Singapore’s Head of Police, and Zhen, triad member and once the lowliest of coolies, who beats the odds to become a wealthy Chinese merchant. Tokyo Time marks Dawn's first foray into the historical crime genre. It is again set in Singapore, against the backdrop of the Japanese Occupation, when the City State adopted a new time zone - Tokyo time.

What sparked the inspiration for Tokyo Time, and was there a specific moment or event that influenced the narrative, especially regarding the murder aspect?

I was in the middle of a Creative Writing PhD which concerned local women’s experiences of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore and had done a mountain of research for the book which would eventually come out of that (Salvaged from the Fall, Penguin). I’d got bogged down and frustrated with the academic process at one point and needed some distance and clear air. A new project, something I hadn’t attempted before but which could make use of the research I’d done. 

I’d enjoyed Foyle’s War, the TV series set in wartime England by the brilliant Anthony Horowitz, and thought telling the history of a period through crime stories would be interesting both for me and for the reader.     

What motivated the title Tokyo Time

Everything changed in Singapore at the beginning of the Japanese Occupation: the name of the island, the year, month, week and hour, the language, street names, everything, overnight, everywhere. Brutal. Terrifying. Lives turned upside down. All the old certainties crushed under the yoke of a fearful and alien occupier. The end of the British Empire! The cover reflects that with the faded Union Jack. 

Tokyo Time is about shock and anger, and the moral choices we are suddenly forced, or decide, to make—good, bad, foolish, noble, necessary, vindictive—in drastically altered circumstances. Nothing is more drastically altering to the flow of the familiar than war and occupation. 

Very early on I pick a title (or two or three possibilities) and also design a cover. Publishers sometimes ask for examples of a cover by the author and it keeps me centred into theme as well as having fun with design. I gave a mock-up of the cover to Tokyo Time to my publisher who was happy to go with it and present me with five alternatives to pick from. 

The detectives in Tokyo Time, Martin Bach (Eurasian) and Kano Hayashi (Japanese), are notably intricate characters. Were they inspired by real individuals you encountered during your research?

My research showed me that many ordinary Japanese men and women hated fascist control and the privations and horrors of the war. Over 3,000,000 Japanese military and civilians died in WW2. Kano Hayashi abhors what his country has come to and has a strong sense of his own moral centre and ideas of personal justice. I leaned a little bit into the fictional Japanese 18th century magistrate, Ooka Tadasuke, famous for his acumen and fairness. Hayashi is not above righting wrongs he sees as having gone unpunished. This makes him interesting, subversive and more unpredictable than you’d think at first.

My readings of Eurasian memoirs of the war were instructive, speaking to their authors' positions in the liminal spaces between multiple cultures and how they navigated them in a new reality. Martin has a German father, Indochinese mother, raised by a Cantonese amah, British educated but never accepted by Britons. Likewise, Eurasians were distrusted by the Japanese who saw them as ‘bastard’ puppets of the British. Martin is as wary, alert, resentful and pragmatic as that upbringing has taught him. He has no problem with the ignominious end of British rule and can role with the punches. 

Hayashi and Bach have different backgrounds and lives. As a writer this supplies me with the possibilities of amusing/dramatic cultural clashes and interesting social situations, but at the deepest level, I wanted them, as detectives, to find common ground in the pursuit of truth.      

In creating the world of occupied Singapore in Tokyo Time, how did you navigate the interplay between research and imagination?

It’s always a balance. The crime and the characters are imagined of course, but the background, the events, the timelines are factual. I always do this with my historical fiction. Research into the past can only get you so far. History books are not always useful beyond dates and major events. Written by men, they leave out women and ordinary people. I always try to go to diaries, memoirs, oral histories if they exist. In Tokyo Time, some real characters appear as themselves, others are based on real people but the names are changed. The civilian Mayor of Syonan, for example was a real person about whom I had some generalised details (his clash with the military is based in fact), but because I had to make a lot up, I changed his name.  

Tokyo Time marks your transition to historical crime fiction. What prompted this genre shift, especially towards the darker themes of crime?

Crime is a genre which offers—paraphrasing P.D. James—the age-old and universal pleasure provided by a well-told tale, mysterious and dangerous, but one where there is a familiar beginning, middle and end, where wrongs will be righted, the guilty exposed, the innocent vindicated, and human reason will triumph. Crime never seems to lose its appeal.  Historical crime is disciplined and satisfying to write and enjoyable to read. 

Given that Tokyo Time is your first crime novel, did you encounter any particular challenges while delving into this genre? Are there specific literary rules or principles you believe are essential when crafting crime fiction?

As a new genre for me and with all of us becalmed with Covid, there was plenty of time to do some useful research. Watching TV crime series and reading the greats was a good start. I like to do what creative writing teachers call critical reading/watching, noting how the author deploys point of view, plot twists, rounded characters, cliff hangers, and even clichés. More than any other genre, crime fiction comes with reader expectations and leans into a formula. Knowing that is half the battle. The originality comes by bending the formula to your own ends – with unexpected characters, crimes and location. Setting becomes a character in itself (and always drives plot and atmosphere), especially interesting when it is unfamiliar territory to the reader — like Singapore under Japanese Occupation. 

PD James wrote: “One of the ancillary pleasures of reading mysteries is that of discovering new facts and gaining an insight into different and fascinating worlds. It has been said that a good mystery consists of twenty-five percent puzzle, twenty-five percent characterization, and fifty percent what the author knows best.” If you want to read her insights into crime fiction look at the Paris Review.

With the intriguing detectives Bach and Hayashi in Japanese-occupied Singapore, can readers anticipate more historical crime novels featuring them in the future?

The plan is to tell the story of the Occupation from the Fall to the atom bomb. Is it too ambitious? Perhaps. Time will tell. Book two is underway in any case. Three murders, restless spirits and a disappearance, the dreaded secret police and twisty trouble galore for Bach and Hayashi! All the titles of the books, will be thematic, and the theme will be reflected in the central crime. 

Details: Tokyo Time is published by Brash Books (USA) in paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.