You will SWOON. Hurray for Anne Oman

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  You know how Jungle Red goes when we introduce you to a new author. There's an intro, and a tiny bio, and then the author writes something, and then at the end there's the book synopsis and more bio. And then we chat.
And that works fine, it really does.
But today, I'm going to set this up differently. Because two things. 
One, Anne Oman wrote MANGO RAINS, her first novel, when she was  79.
So there's that.
And now, read the description of MANGO RAINS.
 “Before the monsoon came the mango rains, which were short, hard downpours that forced the mango trees to surrender their just-ripe fruits and tantalized the city’s inhabitants with a hint of the release the monsoon rains would soon bring. 
Julia Galbraith, a newly arrived Foreign Service Officer just short of her 23rd birthday, stood on the terrace of her ground-floor apartment on the rue Pasteur and watched the rain fall. She was not beautiful, or even pretty, but she was tall and slender and blonde, which almost made up for the lack. Though a little shy, she exuded the freshness and vulnerability of a woman on the brink of life….”
Mango Rains is a story of love, loss and political intrigue in Southeast Asia during the turbulent 1960s. While war rages next door in Viet Nam, expats in the sleepy, peaceful Cambodian capital fall in and out love and dance to the tune of the famously mercurial Prince Sihanouk. As the gentle mango rains give way to the tumultuous monsoon, world events—the assassinations of JFK and South Viet Nam’s Ngo Dinh Diem—precipitate a crisis that scatters the characters to the far corners of the globe.
HANK: Are you swooning? Or what?  And now, more from the amazing Anne Oman.


by Anne Oman

I once tried to write a mystery novel – it was harder than I thought.

I set it in Kauai. There was a female food writer, a Colombo-like cop, a poet who posted his works (which were really clues) on telephone poles, drug smugglers, and a backpacker pushed to his death from the treacherous trail that winds atop the Na Pali coast. I figured I could take a few “research” trips to Kauai and claim the expenses on my tax return.

But when I reread the unfinished story, I came to a sobering realization: there wasn’t any mystery. Even the thickest reader would be able to identify the culprit. I needed a plot twist. I stuck the manuscript in a drawer – and I can’t remember which drawer.

So, I have great respect for people who can write mystery novels, which I read voraciously. My all-time favorites are Ross MacDonald, whose hard–boiled detective Lew Archer solves noir crimes in 1940s LA, and Agatha Christie, queen of the English country-house mystery. Alas, both are dead, and I’ve read all their books. Among the living whose works I wait for impatiently: Sarah Paretsky, Michael Connolly, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. And I love finding other exciting mystery authors, and look forward to reading the books of the Jungle Red writers I haven’t discovered yet.

When I finally published my first fiction, a novella entitled Mango Rains, it was not a mystery but so-called literary fiction, a pretentious catchall term for anything that doesn’t fit neatly into any other genre box. But I did include some nefarious activity: opium smoking, espionage – are murder.

Some background: the book begins in Phnom Penh, the sleepy capital of Cambodia, in 1963. Like the book’s principal character, Julia, I was a newly minted 22-year-old Foreign Service Officer assigned there. People at Foreign Service posts tell a lot of stories, especially to newcomers. The idea is to make the newbie understand that “Before you come, things here were more exciting/scarier/more dangerous/more fun/better/worse.” You had to take the tales with a healthy dose of skepticism. One story I heard from several sources was about the killing of a young American boy by a group of cyclo-pousse drivers.

A cyclo-pousse is a carriage propelled from behind – or pushed – by a man on a bicycle. This was the main form of public transportation in the city. The drivers all knew rudimentary French, and you could direct them by saying “a la droite,” “a la gauche,” etc. 

 When you arrived at your destination, the driver would name a price, and you could pay it – or haggle. But the boy in the story, the son of an American aid official, would take long rides, refuse to pay the fare – and run. 

 Eventually, a group of drivers, having received only a shrug from the police, took matters into their own hands: one of the kid’s joy rides ended on a lonely road where a group of drivers ambushed him and stabbed him (sort of like the ritual stabbing in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express). His body, with multiple stab wounds, was found several days later in a rice paddy.

Was the story true?
I took cyclos all the time, and found the drivers reliable and courteous. But then again, I always paid the fare. And who knows what impoverished, disenfranchised people will do if they have no other recourse? Anyway, I was writing fiction, so I decided to use the story.

I introduced it in the second chapter, at a dinner party in the home of an American economic attaché, when a Cambodian journalist asks: “What will your Embassy do about the murder of the American boy by the cyclo drivers?”

The host, a seasoned, cynical and hard-drinking diplomat named Bill Harper, tells the reporter that the Ambassador has taken the matter up with Cambodia’s head of state, the famously mercurial Prince Sihanouk, who has piously promised to investigate. But, his tongue loosened by drink, he explains that the Prince is simply telling the Ambassador what he wants to hear but that “he doesn’t really expect the Ambassador to believe it.”

The problem, he adds, is that “the Ambassador doesn’t know the rules of the game here --he takes it all literally… He has no grasp of Asia.”

It’s dangerous to make sweeping pronouncements about a whole people, but it’s generally true that in Asia, face is all-important. You may know the façade isn’t quite real, but you at least have to pretend to believe it -- as long as you don’t fool yourself.

The never-to-be-solved murder comes up again at a vernissage –the opening of an exhibit of paintings at the American Library. The same Bill Harper, cocktail-fueled, tells his young protegėe: “…All the art exhibits, all the perfumes of Arabia, none of it matters a damn…. “I’m not sure any of these people matter either… Look outside, at the man sweeping the street, or the guy pedaling the cyclo. Do we have any inkling of what they’re thinking? Maybe someday they’ll tell us, and I’ll bet it won’t be pretty. Maybe we got just a hint of that in the murder of the American boy.”

This is a 20/20 hindsight allusion to the Pol Pot holocaust, the time of the brutal killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. In fact, I had absolutely no premonition of these horrors to come, and had trouble taking them in when they occurred. (The best book on that subject is Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.)

In the last chapter of Part I of Mango Rains, many of the Americans, including Julia, are leaving Cambodia in the wake of the diplomatic breakup. At the airport, Julia sees the family of the murdered boy: “The Air Lao plane to Vientiane was called, and the family of the child killed by the cyclo drivers started to board. The father had been transferred to Laos, and the wife carried a brass box that held the boy’s ashes.”

If this were a Christie novel
, Hercule Poirot would have called all the cyclo-pousse drivers in Phnom Penh into the library and given us all the benefit of his little gray cells and revealed exactly which ones stuck their knives into the boy. The obliging Inspector Japp would have carried the culprits off to justice, and the rest of us would have raised a toast with our glasses of sherry.

But, alas, this is the mysterious East, where mysteries don’t get solved that easily. Or at all.


HANK: Okay, Reds and Readers. Do we want to be Anne Oman, or what?  Tell us what you think when you read this...and congratulate a wonderful new author. 

(And Anne, my Dad was a cultural affairs officer for USIA from 1960 or so until he retired. And his wife was also in USIA. I wonder if you'd crossed paths. Seoul, Cebu, Bangkok, Hamburg, London?)

Anne H. Oman began her career as a Foreign Service Officer for the now defunct US Information Agency, which was charged with “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” She served in Cambodia and Indonesia and was expelled from both countries, for political, not personal, reasons.

Since that time, she has worked principally as a journalist. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times, Washington Woman, Family Circle, Sailing, National Geographic World, Senior Scholastic and many other publications. Currently, she is Reporter At Large for the Fernandina Observer in Fernandina Beach, Florida. She has also published four non-fiction books. Mango Rains is her first work of fiction.