Mark Bibby Jackson is a first time novelist with the novella Always in his list of credits. My expectations are kept low with first time novelists, particularly ones with Southeast Asia themes that weave in the nightlife. To Cook a Spider is different and should not be categorized as a bar girl book. If anything, similar to author John Burdett, Jackson paints a sympathetic picture of the women and girls working in the various entertainment professions – not so for their clientele. Both mood and tone are excellent throughout the book. To Cook a Spider conjured up images of another first novel, The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. That’s not necessarily high praise as I believe Chandler’s later novels are much better. But like Chandler, Jackson is a very descriptive writer of places and things occurring in big cities or small towns. In Jackson’s case the cities are Phnom Penh and Paris with a sprinkling of Bangkok added for additional expat flavor. Unlike Chandler, who wrote his first novel in 1943, Jackson does a better job describing what goes on inside the heads of his characters – the classy ones and the classless ones. The visuals I had going on in my head as I read To Cook a Spider were all in cinematic black and white. The opening is particularly artful as one old friend in need uses the modern day version of a Western Union telegraph message, Facebook, to lure in a London based long lost friend indeed, to visit him and his wife at their French Colonial restaurant and guesthouse in Battambang, Cambodia. Jackson shows patient and believable writing, particularly in the first third of the story, with a good mixture of dialogue and narrative.
Expats familiar with Cambodia and Thailand are sure to enjoy most if not all of the familiar backdrops and characters found in the region. This is a moody mystery more than a thrilling thriller, which keeps you turning the pages because you know something is about to happen and you’re reasonably certain that something will be bad. There are not a lot of characters to like in this novel. No one stands out as the brightest burning incense stick in the pack but that just adds to the believability and entertainment.
An interesting back story is the culinary arts scene of Cambodia complete with the idea for a collaborative cook book. I often find this kind of add on provides more distraction than benefit, for me, in moving a story forward but Jackson does a good job here. Foodies should enjoy the attention to detail. One desert gets so many mentions I felt sure someone would be poisoned by it before the finale but that never happened; that’s a good thing. You don’t want to guess too many plot points correctly in any mystery. There are healthy portions of diabolical murders, love triangles and betrayals served up in To Cook a Spider.
This is not a flawless novel; there are convoluted plot points and some that take a high dose of disbelief suspension. There is the needed explanation of motives – perhaps too much at times for veteran mystery fans. For the bulk of the story Jackson writes intelligently, with great word economy and shows the ability to create believable characters and believable plot twists.
Just as Raymond Chandler’s best novels came after 1943, I suspect Mark Bibby Jackson’s best novels are yet to come. He’s got all the tools in the toolbox. I’d like to see him up his game by constructing a novel with a tighter plot that is character driven and not dependent on material that is better served up in a travel guide or a nightlife blog.
I enjoyed the Author’s Note and the recipe for Crispy Tarantulas with lime and Kampot black pepper dip offered after the optimistic ending. That’s not a spoiler. Just a tasty tidbit. I recommend To Cook a Spider for anyone who likes a good Southeast Asian mystery with a bit of neon and plenty of shady characters.