In The Tsunami File, Frank Delaney -- investigative journalist and sometime spy -- is on assignment in Phuket, Thailand, in the aftermath of the tsunami that killed thousands of people, foreigners and locals alike. Disaster victim identification teams from police forces across the globe have descended on this idyllic holiday location to carry out their gruesome work. Delaney discovers that, against all logic, someone is trying to prevent identification of one of the bodies lying in makeshift beachside morgues. His search for the reason follows a trail through Thailand’s seedy child sex trade to an elaborate cover-up in Germany and France, where those with everything to lose use increasingly desperate measures to stop him dead.
NEW!. The Tsunami File short-listed for Best Novel in the 2009 Arthur Ellis Awards. See article for more details.
Watch an interview with Michael Rose talking about The Tsunami File and his work as a writer. Click here to watch
"A layered, evocative action thriller, The Tsunami File is an accomplished work, reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. The plot is full of twists and turns, the characters original and believable, and the reader is carried along effortlessly through the complex, intertwined worlds of intelligence agencies, forensics work, and investigative journalism, the challenging puzzles never overshadowed by the well-paced action. The third and most recent in the Frank Delaney thriller series, The Tsunami File is a fascinating tale on many levels, and ends all too quickly, leaving the reader wanting more. It is one of the most compelling novels that I’ve read in a very long time."
- James Napier, Mystery and Crime Fiction Reviewer, The Record
To read full feature review, click here
Frank Delaney on assignment in Thailand. Journalist on this occasion, not spy. Not yet. What does he see?
Squat steel shipping containers sitting in silent rows on stony level ground. They are old, weathered. Some are white, some pearl grey. Faded markings and logos and serial numbers from the sea-freight companies that once used them are still inscribed on the corrugated rectangular sides and the sturdy double doors, which are tightly closed against Phuket's intense tropical heat and light.
There are dozens of these containers in the deserted, barren compound. From afar, there is nothing that immediately indicates their contents. They sit silent in the new day's burgeoning heat, for Phuket in the month of March at sunrise is already hot. They reveal, for the moment, nothing.
Tall, slender palms sway in the slight breeze outside the compound's fenced perimeter. Inside, low temporary electrical poles among the container corridors support many strands of black cable. From these poles, single strands of cable pass to the backs of each container, then down to small air-conditioning units that hum quietly at ground level, the sound all but obscured by the rustle of palms and by the breeze itself.
Here and there on the rough gravel pathways are old-fashioned medical gurneys, little more than sturdy stretchers on oversized wheels. These give an observer the first hint of what goes on in this forlorn place, when the day begins.
There are several large tents to one side, khaki military tents with small flags haphazardly flown from makeshift standards. On one tent, first in the row, a flag of Sweden flutters fitfully. On another, Australia's flag, and on the rest flags of Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, other nations.
Through the slightly parted flap of one of these tents can be seen two sets of rubber boots, one set white, the other powder blue. On a cot in the dimness behind the boots lies a ball cap of the type worn by a policeman, perhaps a soldier. These items, too, give a hint of what goes on in this place when the day begins.
On the opposite side of the compound, well away from the tents, are some temporary flat-roofed structures with white metal walls and small windows. Air-conditioning units behind them are tethered to black electrical cables, as with the shipping containers. More medical gurneys are ranged near the entrance doors to these small buildings, alongside green rubbish containers on wheels with bright yellow plastic liners showing beneath their hinged covers.
A passenger jet takes off from the airport in the near distance, its muted roar breaking the dawn spell of this strange and lonely scene. Delaney turns to watch it go, squinting against the brilliant sun and the steel flash of aircraft wings.
Casually dressed people begin to arrive in the compound, individually, and in small groups, most of them incongruously cheery and talkative in such surroundings. They take little notice of Delaney standing outside the compound fence. He carries no notebook, no camera. The arrivals, however, carry small overstuffed backpacks, battered sports bags, official briefcases. They greet each other and remark on the weather and make small talk as colleagues do in any workplace on any workday morning anywhere in the world.
Many languages are used for these morning workplace greetings. Men and women, but mostly men, enter the tents and reappear in spotless medical garb. Blue surgeons' smocks and caps, white lab coats, rubber boots. Some have surgical masks bunched at the ready on their necks; some carry rubber gloves. Most of these people are Europeans. Some Thai workers in overalls and some uniformed Thai police also appear.
The place suddenly takes on an air of macabre hustle and bustle. Steel container doors are swung open. White vapours waft out, the cold dry air from inside meeting the hot moist air outside in a sudden ghostly mix. Within the dimness of the containers being opened appear rows of rough wooden bunks. On the floors is a mixture of sawdust and sweating corrugations of ice.
On each bunk, in large blue or white plastic bags, lie the dead. Perhaps fifty bodies per 40-foot container-fewer in the 20-foot variety. Dozens of these containers, row upon row, hold hundreds of bodies. These are the tsunami dead, those with no names-battered and drowned and rendered anonymous by the giant waves of December 24, 2004, which heaved chaos on Thailand and on the region for thousands of kilometres around.
Thai workers help European colleagues load some of the numbered body bags onto gurneys for the short journey to the low mortuary buildings. Inside, Delaney knows, with bodies laid out on stainless-steel pathology trays, flanked by gleaming instrument tables and trolleys and examination gear, experts in medical smocks will peer and prod and scrape and slice and sample and test and record all through the day; day after day, week after week, month after month. They are seeking history, certainty, identity.
Along with each body bag will come a plastic-wrapped forensic file containing particulars of where each body was found and any obvious clues as to identity noted at the time of discovery, any clues as to who this human form might once have been.
It is the job of these pathologists and scientists and experts and police officers from around the globe to seek obscure signs in the bags of bones and flesh, to read signs from fingers and teeth and blood and marrow, and to discover, if they can, something certain about former identities, former lives.
At day's end, when the gruesome work stops once more and the last rigid finger or putrefying remnant of finger has yielded a print, when the last dental X-ray has been taken and the last tissue or bone sample has been labelled and carefully sealed away, when the last notes have been taken as to scars, tattoos and body piercings, as to watches, rings and pendants worn, the multinational teams will disperse as from any workplace the world over, making plans for meals, for drinks, for various evening excursions.
The bodies will be transported again to their places, for how much longer no one knows. Container doors will swing tightly shut once more. The interiors will fall silent and dark, the nameless forms on comfortless bunks abandoned to their fates once more.
These are the tsunami dead, rendered nameless by the catastrophic waves and the subsequent action of water and sunlight and insects on their skin and features and any other sign of who they were or one day might have been.
Jonah Smith was a fingerprint man. But he hardly knew himself in Thailand. He had been transformed. Friends and colleagues, especially no-nonsense former colleagues from Scotland Yard and his current colleagues at Interpol back in France, would surely have mistaken him for someone else.
He had, for example, bought himself a bicycle. Not new, not fancy-Chinese-made, black in colour. It had cost him 800 Thai baht and a few minutes of heavy negotiation with a grinning local seller who had taken to cruising the Phuket area after the tsunami in a red pickup truck loaded with bikes of dubious origin and in various states of disrepair. Smith had not owned a bicycle for decades, not since he was a skinny boy in short pants in Yorkshire. But he now rode his jangling, creaking, disreputable machine each day from the Bay Hotel, where the Interpol team and some of the Thai disaster victim identification people and senior police had been billeted, to the Information Management Centre in Phuket Town. It was a cheery if somewhat sweaty and bumpy ride of about five kilometres.
Smith had also exchanged his navy blue Interpol Incident Response Team golf shirt-all the Disaster Victim Identification teams in Phuket had been issued similar no-nonsense policelike shirts, emblazoned with their countries' flags or the logos of their home police departments-for some wild floral shirts in bright yellows, green, orange. These local shirts were cooler and far more practical in the intense heat and humidity, and Smith liked the way the sleeves and collars flapped extravagantly in the breeze as he pedaled to work six days a week. He was transformed during those rides, for a time, from forensic expert and fingerprint man to all but carefree tourist.
His skin, too, had been changed by the Thai air and sun. It had had little exposure to the sun in the years he worked for the police. For 15 years he took the London Underground each workday from his dim ground-floor flat in Highbury; as often as not he had to run through rain the short distance from St. James's Park station to the forbidding glass-fronted office building set back behind the famous revolving Scotland Yard sign. In London he might not see sunshine for days at a time. In Lyon he had been too busy in the depths of the Interpol headquarters to take much advantage of the southern France sunlight. Now, in Thailand, his skin was toasted brown, cleared of all blemishes, rejuvenated. His thinning curly hair had been bleached a slightly lighter brown, as were his eyebrows and his blossoming new mustache.
He was, in fact, healthier and happier than he ever remembered, despite being, as he sometimes had to remind himself, in the direct aftermath of one of the greatest natural disasters of all time, surrounded by death and destruction, by hundreds of unidentified bodies and by the frantic relatives of the dead, by police and forensic experts from around the world, by worried Thai officials and worried foreign diplomats, and trying, prying journalists.
The fact of the matter, he would often think as he rode his rickety bike to the IMC of a morning, was that for a fingerprint man the Phuket disaster site was a little bit of paradise.
He was 43 years old, at the peak of his professional expertise. He had been seconded by Scotland Yard to Interpol in France five years earlier. He had had a very good run at Interpol and in Lyon despite, or perhaps because of, his wife having refused to leave London and join him there. He had helped spearhead Interpol's effort to move more decisively onto the world stage for forensic identification, despite heavy competition from the ambitious DNA types inside Interpol and out, and he had been a natural choice, when the agency's Incident Response Team was hurriedly formed in the hours after the tsunami hit, to be sent out to Phuket to lend a hand.
Almost three months later he was still at it, still counting his blessings as each day another file of postmortem data hit his desk in the IMC building and each day he peered at fingerprints hour after hour, on paper and on computer screens, using his hard-won expertise to match patterns of arches, loops and whorls to the story of who the victim truly was.
It was work he had loved from the first day he walked into Scotland Yard's eighth-floor fingerprint division as a civilian trainee in 1984-during the heyday, the height, of its power and prestige in the London Metropolitan Police. Sir Gerald Lambourne, the legendary division head, had retired a year earlier, but Jonah Smith nonetheless joined at a time when a good fingerprint man was still the object of unconditional respect in police circles and among the public at large. The mystique of a good fingerprint man's knowledge and skills were still the stuff of legend.
Smith had loved that world from the very first days and weeks of his lengthy training. He had loved walking amongst the dark wooden file cabinets that in those years held the millions of fingerprint cards compiled by Scotland Yard to date. He had loved learning the venerable Henry Classification System, despite its Victorian-era quirks and complexities, and he had loved peering for hours through a magnifying glass at fingerprints, sometimes hundreds in a session, trying to discover the true story of someone's identity or their crimes or their manner of death.
He had loved visiting crime scenes with police officers in those years, dusting furniture and window frames and mirrors and mundane household objects for finger marks. He loved extracting a usable mark from a challenging surface, loved bringing his findings back to the Yard and plunging into the drawers of cards, before all of these had eventually been committed to computer files, to find out just who was who and what was what.
"The time I like best is the moment immediately after you make an identification," he would tell all who would listen in those years, would tell his wife in the years when she still listened to him enthuse about his work. "For a little while, for a very short while as you sit with the prints spread out on the table, you are the only person in the entire world who knows exactly who that person really is."
The Tsunami File
Michael E. Rose
Paperback, 300 p.
22 January 2015
Available from Amazon, Or download as an e-book from Kobo, Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Sony eBookstore and OverDrive.