Murder, He Wrote
Jake Needham is the American author of a bestselling series of Asian set crime novels. I discover the man behind the page, and talk writing, career, censorship and ambition
Jake Needham is the author of the 'Mean Streets' series, a dual set of Asian crime novels that feature Singaporean detective Samuel Tay, and former Washington lawyer Jack Shepherd. It's a path less travelled by English-language authors, with most of his crime novelist brethren choosing the streets of London or New York over Bangkok and Hong Kong, but it's earned him a loyal following, for his talent in bringing the underbelly of Asian life – as those of us who live here actually know it – to the page.
“I was a screenwriter first and only later started writing novels, and I actually became a screenwriter entirely by accident,” explains Needham. “My first job was as a deputy public defender in Washington DC representing robbers, rapists, and murderers. I quickly learned there was a safer future in corporate law.” He had practiced law for a couple of decades and was involved in negotiating and structuring international corporate acquisitions, mostly in Asia. “In the late 1980s, I found myself struggling to keep a very complicated and contentious deal together. A very modest Hollywood production company in the business of making cable TV movies was a tiny piece of the deal, and no one wanted it. Since that was hanging up the rest of the deal, I ended up buying the company myself just to save the whole mess from falling into a heap.”
Because he was stuck with the company, Needham thought he should at least try to make something out of it in the hope that it might actually turn a profit someday. He dashed off an outline of the kind of a movie he wanted the company to focus on and a copy of that outline accidentally got sent by one of the development team to a contact they had at HBO. Several weeks later, HBO called them up and asked them to make it.
“‘Make what?’ they asked,” recalls Needham. “‘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 you to write the full screenplay and we’ll make it anyway’. And that, boys and girls, was how I became a professional screenwriter.”
In the last 22 years, Needham has published 12 novels, just a touch over one every two years. “I know these days it’s fashionable for some writers to publish two or even four or six novels every year, but that’s just not in my DNA. Besides, I can’t believe any novelist can write more than one book a year that’s worth reading. I really can’t.”
“I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers” says Needham, “cop novels mostly, not just because I write that sort of stuff myself, but because they’re my favorite kind of reading.” He reads all the ‘usual American suspects’, writers like James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Don Winslow, Danny Smith, and Michael Connelly, as well as British authors like Steve Cavanaugh, Chris Carter, and Tony Parsons. “Most of the crime thrillers you find in Thailand bookstores are actually sourced from the UK,” explains Needham, “so I’m able to keep up with a lot of good writers who get hardly any notice in the US. I like Brit cop novels. Nobody does cop novels better than the Brits do.”
Needham was born and raised in Houston. “Growing up in Texas might be responsible for me having a strong sense of independence and the confidence to go it alone when I need to. I had an uncle who was a Texas Ranger and they often worked alone: one man to a car, one man to a case. I guess I function now on the conviction that in the end we all have to be able to rely primarily on ourselves. Maybe I picked that up from him.”
The first time I was in Bangkok was in the early ‘70s, and after that I was in and out a fair number of times throughout the eighties on business. While producing that movie for HBO, he met his wife. “She had been born in Bangkok, although she grew up in the UK and graduated from Oxford. We met when she was doing a stint as the editor of the Thai edition of a British magazine. She came out to the set one day to interview me for a piece and we were married about a year later. That was almost 30 years ago now and we’ve maintained residences in both Thailand and the US pretty much ever since.”
Needham’s memories from those two decades ended up becoming the basis for his first novel The Big Mango. “When I look at it now, it feels to me like a bit of a time capsule filled with bits and pieces I accumulated in a time and a place now sadly swept away by a flood tide of something that a lot of people seem to think of as progress.”
On The Big Mango
“After making crap movies for cable television for nearly 10 years, I wanted to see if I could figure out how to write novels instead.” Needham thought there might be more dignity in publishing novels than there was in writing for television, even if there was a little less money involved. “I was partly right. Turns out, there was a lot less money involved. But, boy, was I ever wrong about the dignity part. There’s not a whole lot of that to be found in either occupation.” Given that he had lived there, were there any autobiographical aspects to the book? “None at all. I just sat down and made it all up.”
When the book reviews came, Needham was pleasantly surprised. “I hadn’t really thought about what the response might be, and what actually happened really amazed me. No one really reviewed The Big Mango except for the local papers and magazines in Thailand, of course, but they all went nuts for it. ‘There’s no room for improvement. The Big Mango is as good as it gets,’ the Bangkok Post newspaper gushed. Can’t beat that, can you?” The other thing you couldn’t beat is that the book sold like hot cakes.
“The distributor had a virtually monopoly over the English-language book business in Southeast Asia so they stuffed a ton of copies into every shop anywhere in the region that sold English-language books,” recalls Needham. “You couldn’t go into the gift shop of the most obscure hotel in Thailand or anywhere in Laos or Cambodia without seeing a bunch of copies of The Big Mango in the book rack. And the cover was bright yellow so nobody missed it.” The publisher sold 200,000 copies in the three years they had exclusive rights, almost all of them in countries with limited English speakers.
On Jack Shepherd
After The Big Mango did so well, Needham thought he’d better start taking this novel-writing business seriously, choosing to write in the first person in the hope that the relative intimacy of that form might make Thailand interesting to a larger group of readers. “To tell a first-person story, you need to come up with a guy to tell it, so I started writing Laundry Man and Jack Shepherd turned up from somewhere to help me tell the story. I honestly never gave any thought to the character until the day he first appeared on the page right in front of me, but he and I have been pals ever since.”
On Samuel Tay
Laundry Man was released in 2002, and The Ambassador’s Wife, the first Needham novel to feature new character Singapore Inspector Samuel Tay, came out four years later.
'“I wanted to write a Singaporean cop novel because I thought modern Singapore would be a pretty good setting for a cop novel,” says Needham. “However, I didn’t know anything about being a cop in Singapore, or even very much about being a Singaporean, and that’s why I made Tay’s father an American. I thought maybe I could lean on Tay being half American to finesse my way through having next to no idea what I was talking about when it came to Singaporean culture. Novelists use a lot of techniques to cover up ignorance. Personally, I’ve probably got 60 pretty good ones.”
Up until 2012, the print editions of Needham’s books had been published by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore, until the antics of Inspector Tay caught the attention of the city authorities. “I had pretty good contacts in Singapore in both the police and the intelligence services before The Ambassador’s Wife was published,” begins Needham.
“However, after it was published none of them would admit that they knew me. You see, Singapore doesn’t look kindly on the portrayal of any Singaporean cop as anything other than fifteen feet tall and filled with virtue. There are no lazy, inept, or - God forbid - dishonest cops there. Not a one. Any reader of American cop novels would find the portrayal of the Singaporean cops in The Ambassador’s Wife to honestly be pretty benign, even laudatory, but the mere suggestion that they might allow any case to be influenced by political considerations is utterly unacceptable in Singapore.
“Here’s how seriously they take that sort of thing in Singapore. A year or so before I published The Ambassador’s Wife, an elderly British writer and academic named Alan Shadrake had been arrested when he visited Singapore to deliver a lecture. He 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 my book 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’s list. But there’s a little more to this than just having a 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 had said 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 government agency that has draconian powers to grab people and hold without charge, and that I might be prosecuted on some kind of claim I had brought Singapore into disrepute.
“I would have just laughed the whole thing off, but Alan Shadrake was probably sitting in prison right then after being convicted on an almost identical charge and I doubt he was laughing. The whole threat was probably bullshit, but if you can’t trust MI6 who can you trust, right? Anyway, being told you can’t return to Singapore is rather like being told you can never have another colonoscopy. It’s not entirely bad news.”
In one of his recent newsletters, Needham lamented that the audience for English-language, Asian-set novels seems lower than it’s ever been. I asked him why he felt this was the case. “On the whole, I don’t think American readers have ever had much interest in Asia or felt any connection with it, while Brits might feel a slightly greater connection, which is probably a residual of empire, but not much. And it’s not just novels set in Asia that don’t attract much interest from western readers. Can you name any novels popular in the US or UK set in Africa or Latin America? No, I thought not.
“I don’t want to get bogged down in the whole racial swamp thing, which seems to be where most every conversation ends up these days, but I think it’s apparent that most American and Brit readers have an easier time identifying with an Italian or a Swede than they do with a Thai or a Singaporean. Novels only hold readers when they have some sense of identification with the people in them. If the characters and the settings mean nothing to a reader, they generally lose interest in the narrative pretty quickly.
“My sense is that the whole virus panic and all the lockdowns that came with it have made all that worse. We’re hardly traveling at all now, and we’ve focused ourselves closer to home than ever before. On the whole, I think that has made people even more ethnocentric than they previously were. We’re less interested in events that don’t have a personal impact on us, and we’re even less interested in people who aren’t like us.”
On the future
Needham recently announced to his readers he was thinking of leaving Asia behind and writing about something else. “Afterwards I received a ton of emails asking me to reconsider. Then, on top of that, I found out that Mongkok Station, my most recent Inspector Tay novel - set in Hong Kong in the midst of the recent democracy riots - had been nominated for two awards: the International Thriller Writers for 'Best Ebook Thriller of 2021’, and a Barry Award as ‘Best Paperback Original Mystery of 2021’.”
The Barry Award is given out every year at an annual convention of mystery readers in America called Bouchercon and is one of the most prestigious awards an American mystery or thriller can win. “Mongkok Station was the only nominee for a Barry that wasn’t published by a big American publisher. It’s the functional equivalent of a guy making a movie in his garage using his iPhone and seeing it nominated for an Oscar.
“Anyway, now I feel like a real shit telling people I’m thinking about stepping away from what I’ve been doing these last twenty years when so many nice people really want me to continue doing what I’ve been doing. So, I guess the honest answer then is that right now, right here, today, I have no idea what comes next. Not a fucking clue.”
John Gregory Dunne once famously described writing novels as manual labor of the mind. “He compared it to laying pipe,” says Needham. “Today you dig a trench twenty feet long, lay down twenty feet of pipe, then tomorrow you do another twenty feet, and on and on. I think that metaphor nails the whole process perfectly. For me, writing a novel isn’t an emotional undertaking. Neither being sad nor excited comes into it. I dig my trenches wherever they may run, and I lay my pipe whatever might pass through it.
“It’s what I do.”