School of the Ages


special interview: Jake Needham, Asia's Top Crime Novelist

Posted by Matt Posner on May 27, 2013 at 4:55 PM

It's my great pleasure to introduce the bi-continental crime novelist, a public figure in Asia and a top eBook seller in the U.S., Mr. Jake Needham.

How is life different in the United States and in Thailand? How do daily routines vary? Do you feel equally free in both homes?

To tell the truth, I’ve never really thought about it very much. We’ve divided our lives between Thailand and the United States for so long now, nearly twenty-five years, the whole process is largely seamless for us.

I suppose the major difference is that we’re both anonymous in the US where we aren’t in Thailand. My wife has been quite a well-known figure in Thailand for most of her life, but she isn’t connected to anything prominent in the US so no one knows her there at all. Likewise, since the print editions of my books have never been sold in the US, I’m completely unknown there, too. I’m never asked to make appearances at bookstores or to sign books, and absolutely no one ever recognizes me anywhere I go.

It’s quite a different story in Asia where my books and I have been getting good press for fifteen years. I certainly don’t mind being recognized or asked to sign books, and I very much appreciate the invitations I get to show up here and there and talk about books, but there’s still a nice feeling that comes with being someplace and knowing you are absolutely anonymous.

Haven’t you ever been traveling and checked into a hotel somewhere and then thought to yourself that no one on the planet knew where you were right then? Yeah, I discovered it wasn’t really true either, but it was still a nice feeling while it lasted.

Your website cites Bangkok Post that you are "Michael Connelly with steamed rice" and compares you to John le Carre. What do you think brought about those comparisons?

I think the reviewers were trying to come up with something nice to say about me that might be quoted by somebody else, and they certainly succeeded.

I also think the comparisons related primarily to the style and tone of my books, not necessarily their relative status in the great universe of novelists. There are certainly similarities between the stories in my Sam Tay books and the ones Connelly tells in his Harry Bosch books, as well as some similarities in the tone of my Jack Shepherd books and at least a few of John le Carre’s books. I stake absolutely no claim to the comparisons being intended to suggest I am in a similar class as a contemporary novelist.

You have multiple crime novel series. Why did you decide to write different series? What makes each series different?

After THE BIG MANGO became a sort of cult novel among expatriates in Asia, I came up with the Jack Shepherd character because I wanted to try telling a story in the first person and figured you had to have a pretty strong central character to pull that off. That book was LAUNDRY MAN and I wrote it without the slightest thought that it would become a series.


Jack Shepherd just sort of grew from there, and LAUNDRY MAN seemed to lead naturally to KILLING PLATO and A WORLD OF TROUBLE. The fourth Shepherd novel, THE KING OF MACAU, will be out this fall.

The Inspector Tay character came about because I wanted to do a series set in Singapore. Singapore is a wonderful urban setting with a secretive, often repressive, and sometimes downright scary government – a place ready made for a few great crime novels – and Shepherd just isn’t the right character for those stories. I thought they needed a Singaporean at their core, so I came up with Sam Tay, a Singaporean CID cop who isn’t all that wild about being either a cop or a Singaporean. The first Sam Tay book was THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE, and that one made Sam so many fans that THE UMBRELLA MAN soon followed it. I’ve got plans for a third Sam Tay book, but there’s no specific schedule yet for it to be released.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that the two series have different fans. The Tay series seems to attract a larger proportion of female readers, where the Shepherd series attracts a larger proportion of male readers. The interesting thing is that more and more people who like one series have decided to read the other series as well. I’ve discovered that’s one really nice result of writing two different kinds of books, although it certainly wasn’t something that was at all studied on my part.

What has your interaction been like with other crime and thriller writers?

I don’t have any.

Steve Leather and I have been friends for something like fifteen years, but that’s really just coincidental since we live around the corner from each other when we’re both in Bangkok. I don’t know any other novelists, except a few guys I’ve met here and there in passing but would hardly consider friends.

Since I’ve never been published in the US, I don’t know a living soul in the book business there. Although I’m now selling four to five thousand e-books every month in the US, that doesn’t count for much with the publishing establishment there. Everything there revolves around writers whose books are published by one of the big US publishers and displayed at Barnes and Noble for a week or, maybe, two.

The people involved in that process are largely dismissive of those of us whose books are only available in the US as e-books. We’re not invited to appear at any of the gatherings where writers meet the people who buy crime novels and thrillers, and of course where they also meet each other. As a result, I just haven’t encountered any other novelists in the US in spite of selling an awful lot of e-books there. I hear from an awful of US readers, but no one at all involved in the books business there. Odd, isn’t it?

Asia is quite a different story. I do appear with other writers quite frequently on panels and so forth and so I meet a few novelists here and there. Still, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of English-language crime novelists living and working here who command even the slightest degree of international interest, and we’re all spread out geographically to such a degree that we just don’t encounter each other very often. I can’t honestly cite any friendships at all among the English-language novelists I know of who live and work in Asia, either mine or anyone else’s.

What has been your experience working with the media as an author?

I’ve gotten a lot of attention from the mainstream English-language press in Asia since my books have been pretty popular here. All of the major daily newspapers – The Bangkok Post, The Singapore Straits Times, the Japan Times, and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong – have reviewed my books very favorably, and I’ve had a pile of feature pieces done about me over the years in newspapers and magazines in eight or ten different countries. I’ve even been invited to do television and radio shows every now and then when I’ve been visiting in some of the cities where my books are well known.

I certainly wouldn’t have gotten that kind of attention if I had published a few novels in the US, even pretty popular ones. Unless you’re Stephen King or the New York Times’ flavor of the week, there’s no chance of a novelist getting any attention in the press in the US anymore. Absolutely none at all.

I wish that were not so, Jake, but I agree with you.

Many authors would like their books to be adapted for the screen. Having worked in the field already, you know as well as anyone what would be involved. What is your view in regard to your own books?

Honestly? I really don’t care. If somebody buys the film rights to one of my books, I’ll cash the check and then I’ll show up to see the movie should it ever actually get made. But that’s the extent of my interest.

THE BIG MANGO was under option to three different production houses for eight or nine years. It was almost Jim Gandolfini’s first film after ‘The Sopranos’ ended, then it was almost Tom Cruise’s next film after the first (or was it the second?) ‘Mission Impossible.’ And then it was nothing and I got the rights back. That’s the way almost every book deal ever made in Hollywood has gone. Unless you really need the money, no real novelist ever gives much thought to whether his books will get turned into movies by someone else.

How did you get involved in the practice of international law? Do you have a great story to share here about that work that is not going to be translated into novel form?

Like almost everything else in life, it was an accident.

When I was a very young lawyer, I represented the Air Line Pilots Association before the Civil Aeronautics Board and I was there when disbanding the CAB became the centerpiece of Nixon’s push for deregulation of the airline industry. Nobody had the slightest idea what that was going to mean in real life, so several foreign airlines hired me to represent their interests in the US on the suspicion that since I had been hanging around the CAB for a while I probably had a better idea than most. That worked out pretty well for us both, and in each case it led to me representing the US interests of other companies in the countries where I had airline clients. And that, more or less, is how I ended up as an international lawyer.

Your blog "letters from Asia" has some good photographs. Is photography a hobby of yours or your wife's? Is there anywhere we can see more photos from your life in Asia?

No, I really don’t have any particular interest in photography. For me the camera is just an efficient way to take notes on things I see that I might want to use in a book someday.


When something catches my eye in a certain way I often snap a picture or two, either with my phone of with a small camera I carry when I’m actively out and about finding scenes for a book. Some of those pictures end up in my ‘Letters from Asia,’ but it’s not a studied thing. When I do a new letter, I just troll through the pictures I’ve saved and pick out a few that fit the context of whatever I’m writing about.

Frankly, it never really occurred to me that anyone had any particular interest in my own life in Asia so the pictures I’ve published have been mostly pictures of specific places I’ve used in my books or more general pictures that are related to whatever I’m writing about in one of my letters.

I’m happy keeping that way. My privacy is important to me. I’ve never published pictures of my family or the places we live, and I probably won’t. I also promise never to publish pictures of my food. There are lines of weirdness I simply refuse to cross.

It's been an honor to have you on my site, Jake, and I look forward to digging into your books this summer!

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1 Comment

Reply Marilyn
5:56 PM on May 30, 2013 
Very interesting questions and answers. Great interview.