I recently had the pleasure of connecting with best-selling author Jake Needham. He writes a fantastic and very different crime series set in Southeast Asia. I’ve just recently finished the first book in his Mean Streets series, and am anxious to continue on. Jake has graciously—and entertainingly—answered a few questions for me so that I can introduce him to you. Here it is, the Jake Needham interview:
Tell us about where you live.
We divide our time more or less equally between two homes, one in the Washington DC area and one in Thailand.
My wife was born in Thailand, although she grew up in the UK and graduated from Oxford. We met when she was doing a stint in Bangkok as the editor of the Thai edition of a well-known British magazine, and I was in Thailand pretending to produce a movie for HBO that they were pretending to base on a script I had written. She came out to the set one day to interview me, and we were married about a year later. That was almost twenty-eight years ago now and we’ve maintained residences in both Thailand and the US pretty much ever since.
When and how did you begin writing?
I was a screenwriter first and only started writing novels later, and I became a screenwriter entirely by accident.
I had practiced law for twenty years or so and was mostly involved in the structuring and negotiation of international corporate acquisitions. In the late 1980s, I found myself struggling to keep a complicated and not particularly happy deal from dying. To get the transaction closed, I ended up buying a very modest Hollywood production company out of the deal myself. It was in the business of making cable TV movies and no one wanted it, which was hanging up the rest of the deal.
Since then I was stuck with the company, I tried to focus more tightly on what I thought it could do well, in the hope that it might actually turn a profit someday. I dashed off an outline of the kind of movies I wanted the company to make, and a copy of that outline accidentally got sent by one of the development people to a contact he had at one of the cable TV networks we worked with. Several weeks later, they called me up and asked me to make it for them.
Make what? I asked. The movie you wrote that treatment for, they said.
I never wrote a treatment for anything, I told them, that was a business plan. That’s okay, they said, we want to make it anyway.
And that, boys and girls, was how I became a writer.
That’s pretty funny. What about this crime series you’ve become famous for?
The Mean Street Crime Novels are a little different from most series of crime novels. They’re linked more by place and time than by characters. Some characters appear in some of the books and different characters appear in other books. Characters do reappear, of course. About half of the titles feature Sam Tay of Singapore CID and about half feature Jack Shepherd, an American lawyer living in Hong Kong and keeping the lowest possible profile for all sorts of reasons. There are also characters that overlap the books and turn up in unexpected ways and places, but I’ve tried to keep that kind of low key so that it doesn’t feel gimmicky.
Linking a series by place and time rather than simply repeating the same characters in every title is quite common in the sci-fi and romance genres, but rare in the crime novel genre. Still, my readers seem to like the idea well enough so far. I guess we’ll see if they stick with it.
About that quirky protagonist, Inspector Sam Tay… He is quite a unique cop protagonist. What or who inspired his character?
I wish I had a good story for you here, but I don’t. I just started writing THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE and Sam turned up from somewhere to help me tell the story.
I honestly never gave him any thought at all until the day when he appeared there on the page right in front of me, but he and I have been pals ever since.
You write about “warrant cards” used by the Singapore cops as their official identification. Can you tell us about those?
Warrant card is a British term for a police ID. Its historical meaning is that it announces the authority of the bearer by the warrant of the king or queen. It’s also the terminology used in some of the old Commonwealth countries like Singapore. The cops in most of the foreign jurisdictions I know about don’t commonly have badges. They display a warrant card as their identification.
The Singapore warrant card was really an old-fashioned thing up until about three or four years ago — it almost looked like a home-made ID card with a lot of handwritten stuff filled into blanks — but then they went to the kind of plastic IDs that a lot of company employees hang around their necks these days. All levels of the police force get the same style of warrant card. No gold badges for Singapore dicks. Just plastic cards on lanyards that make them look like the office girls who work at some stockbroker.
After the first in the series, AMBASSADOR’S WIFE, you experienced an interesting reaction by the authorities in Singapore. Tell us about that.
That’s a short question, but it’s got a fairly long answer. Stay with me here.
I had pretty good contacts in Singapore in both the police and the intelligence services, but after THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE was published I lost them all. You see, Singapore doesn’t look kindly on the portrayal of any Singaporean as anything other than fifteen feet tall and filled with virtue. There are no lazy, inept, or — God forbid — dishonest cops. Not a one. I’m sure you’ll find the portrayal of the local cops in THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE to be pretty benign, even laudatory, but the mere suggestion that a case could be influenced by political considerations is utterly unacceptable in Singapore.
Here’s how seriously they took that. A year or so before, an elderly British writer and academic named Alan Shadrake had actually been arrested when he visited Singapore to deliver a lecture and was sentenced to a year in prison for the offense of ‘bringing the government of Singapore into disrepute.’ It seems that he had once written about some court case in Singapore and offered the view that the decision had been influenced by the government.
After THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE came out, pressure was quickly put on my local publisher to withdraw it from distribution in Singapore, and they did without so much as a whimper. Outside of Singapore, however, it was quite a different story. THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE became one of my all-time bestselling books. It even made it all the way to #1 on Amazon bestseller list.
But there’s a little more to this than just having my book effectively banned in Singapore.
The British Ambassador to Singapore back then was a good friend, and he told me that his local MI6 people (British Intelligence) had asked him to pass along to me that they thought it wasn’t safe for me to return. If I did, they said, I would likely face arrest by the Internal Security Department, a Singapore government agency that has draconian powers to grab people and hold them without charges. I would have just laughed the whole thing off, but Alan Shadrake was sitting in prison on similar charges right then and I doubt he was laughing either.
The whole threat was probably bullshit, but if you can’t trust MI6 who can you trust? Then, too, being told you can’t return to Singapore is rather like being told you can’t have another colonoscopy. Not all bad news.
As I ask the next question, I’m still grinning at your previous answer. Anyway, I found it interesting that, in THE AMBASSADOR’s WIFE, Inspector Tay had never been to the red-light district of Thailand, to the amazement of a female official. You also had mentioned to me that some have questioned your motive for living there due to its (perhaps unwarranted) reputation. Would you care to talk about that?
When I am in the United States and my other place of residence comes up in conversation, I am usually asked — and almost always in a tone laden with wariness and suspicion — why in the world I would want to live somewhere like Thailand.
Instead of expressing curiosity about my life in a distant and exotic country, however, my interlocutors generally seem far more intent on telling me what they think of the place, and the view they inevitably express is always pretty much the same. Oh, the place is no doubt interesting, people murmured, but it’s a country where a lot of people go who aren’t particularly… well, nice. To be absolutely honest with you here, I have to admit that perception isn’t really too far off the mark, but that does make Thailand a pretty good place for a crime novelist to hang out, doesn’t it?
The sex thing can get pretty annoying sometimes, and that’s a tough one to avoid. I had one woman, a senior editor at a major New York publisher no less, suddenly ask me if I was a pedophile. While I was just sitting there, too slack-jawed to find the words to respond to her, she went on. “Well,” she huffed when she saw my reaction to her question, “why would any American even think of living in a place like that unless you were one?”
Welcome to New York.
You mentioned that your books haven’t been as big of a hit in the U.S. In fact, I recall even a news article was written on the matter. Why do you think that is?
I guess the right answer is that thankfully they have been popular with American readers, just not with American publishers. There are well over half a million copies of my novels in the libraries of readers in America and all over the world now, and I get a near-constant stream of inquiries from publishers in Europe and Asia about future titles. But I have never, not once, had any American publisher express the slightest interest in any of my books.
I find that really interesting because for me, to read is to get lost in worlds other than your own. I have truly enjoyed reading a crime novel set in Southeast Asia.
There’s no mystery to me as to the reason for that. American publishing is a Manhattan-centric business. In my experience, most people in New York don’t have the slightest interest in Asia or imagine that anyone else does either. A series of crime novels set in contemporary Asia? Americans wouldn’t have any interest in reading them, I’ve been told over and over. Even selling hundreds of thousands of copies on my own without any help at all from those bastards hasn’t changed a thing. They would never admit they could possibly have been wrong.
What’s next for you? Does the Mean Street Crime Novel series continue, or do you have something else in mind?
The book that’s coming out this fall – MONGKOK STATION – will be #12 in the series. That sort of feels like a nice round number to me so maybe I’ll leave it at that. I really don’t know. I guess I’ll figure that out when I get there.
Do you have a favorite book in the series?
You must know that asking a writer which of his books is his favorite is exactly like asking a parent which child he prefers, but you’re asking anyway, aren’t you?
Maybe the most diplomatic way out here is to say that I do have a bit of a soft spot for KILLING PLATO, the fifth book in the series, but the reason for that is mostly that it has gotten far less attention than most of my other books have. I really don’t know why. My wife even says that it is one of her favorites.
The premise of the book is that a well-known guy in the United States, a sort of O.J. Simpson figure, is charged with murder and jumps bail before he can be brought to trial. He becomes the world’s most famous fugitive and ignites a media frenzy. With half the world looking for this guy, one night he turns up in a little bar in Phuket, walks up to Jack Shepherd, and tells him that he wants to hire him. He thinks Shepherd is the man to secure a presidential pardon for him so he can return to America as a free man. Shepherd is a lawyer with some good connections at the White House so it’s not beyond reason that he could do something like that, particularly when our fugitive tells him what he has to trade for his pardon. And that half the US government is trying to kill him before he makes it public.
It’s a damn good book. You ought to read it.
I absolutely will, and I hope many of my readers will also read it and your other great books. So should the series be read in order?
As the series goes on, the people and places that appear in the books age and change in a way that I hope taps into my readers’ own experiences and feels real to them. I suppose reading the books in order might add some enjoyment by being part of that process, but think about Mike Connelly’s books here.
As the series moves along, Harry Bosch is in and out of LAPD, retiring and then unretiring and then retiring again, and the city changes around him, and his wife dies, and he discovers a half-brother he didn’t know he had, and his daughter grows up. I’m not really sure, looking back now, whether I read the Bosch books in the right order or not. And you know what? I don’t really care.
What are the best ways for people to find Jake Needham and his novels?
There’s some more stuff about me on my website with a full list of my titles with links to their book pages on Amazon. You can also contact me directly there, or add your email address to the list of readers who receive the occasional letters I write about the real people, places, and things that appear in my novels in fictional form.
Last Question: What’s with the cap?
I probably know more spies than I know cops. It’s why I wear a CIA hat on the back covers of my books.
I got it when I played on the embassy softball team.
You’re an interesting man, Jake Needham. Thank you for the very entertaining interview, and for your ongoing contribution to crime fiction.
Links for Jake:
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