Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, The House of Doors, publishing in October with Bloomsbury, was inspired by “The Letter,” a W. Somerset Maugham story that fictionalizes the murder of tin mine manager William Steward by Ethel Proudlock, his alleged lover, in British Malaya in the early 20th century.

In Tan’s novel, Maugham arrives on the island of Penang with his secretary Gerald to spend time with Robert Hamlyn, an old friend, and his wife Lesley. It’s 1921 and Maugham is a famous writer on a downward drift—trapped in a sham marriage, his health failing, his career in question, and his financial situation threatening his freedom to travel with Gerald, the love of his life. He goes to Penang in search of a story and Lesley obliges, giving him the details surrounding the Steward murder, as well as her own secrets—even though sharing the latter could be her undoing.

Tan, who was born in Penang and divides his time between Malaysia and South Africa, tells the story in the alternating voices of Maugham and Lesley, focusing on the year of the murder, 1910, and the year of Maugham’s visit, 1921.

The novel presents an arresting portrait of Britons in Malaya, whose restrictive mores and boredom made them susceptible to the excitement of scandal. Tan says, “The colonial Brits had a sense of inferiority so were more British than those in England; they abided by more rigid standards.”

Lesley, at breakfast with the newspaper one morning on her plantation, narrates: “The news was, as usual, dull and inconsequential: a list of men and women who had fallen ill or who had injured themselves; people who had gone back on Home Leave; the names of shipboard passengers who had disembarked in Penang; the latest books now available on the library shelves. I was about to turn the page when a small headline on the bottom left corner caught my eye. ‘My goodness.... Ethel’s been arrested!’ Robert peered at me over his mail. ‘What on earth did she do?’ I skimmed over the cramped small lines of text in the article. ‘She killed a man.’ ”

The real and the imagined intertwine with the richness of the setting and period; Tan makes the historical background comes alive, as with the presence of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary. Lesley’s observes, “He was in his mid to late forties, dapper in a grey suit, with a waistcoat of the same colour buttoned over a white shirt, and a dark blue bowtie. He had refined features, with bright, intelligent eyes and a nose that was narrow and well-shaped for a Chinaman. His moustache was neatly trimmed, his brilliantined hair cut short and meticulously parted on the side. I thought he looked more like a diplomat—and a handsome one at that—than a revolutionary hunted by his government.”

Tan tells me that his father lived on the same street in Penang as Sun. “When I was a child, he would talk about him, the man who brought down the Chinese monarchy,” he says. “This was the seed of the story. I started to read about Sun Yat-sen in my late teens, which is also when I started reading Maugham. When I read ‘The Letter’ and found out that it was based on a true story, the murder stayed in the back of my mind.”

Tan started writing House of Doors in 2014. “It took a long time to write and took a lot out of me,” he explains. “I did a hell of a lot of research; I went right down the rabbit hole.”

He was a barrister and solicitor in Kuala Lumpur for a few years before he became a full-time writer. “I think writers should be out in the world with jobs,” he says. “It forces you to grow up.”

Tracking down the actual court transcripts of the Proudlock case was very difficult . “It was frustrating because when I found them, they were incomplete, with many inconsistencies. They were not so exact in those days!”

The other problem was how to sculpt the facts into a fictional form. Using Maugham’s story was “reverse engineering,” he says. “I took ‘The Letter’ and speculated.” He also wanted to show how hypocritical British sexual mores caused wives to suffer. “It’s an angry book in some ways,” Tan acknowledges, “and not pro-marriage. The happiest character is Gerald, who is true to himself and not beholden.”

When Tan finished the book, the first readers found it confusing, and the agent he had at the time didn’t like it. “I didn’t want to abandon the book,” he says. “I had been working on it so long and didn’t want to think I had wasted all those years. I was in despair until I sent it to Francis Bickmore at Canongate in the U.K. in early 2022.”

Bickmore took one look and said, “We want this book!” Tan tells me, adding that “he had some good suggestions.” House of Doors was acquired by Canongate, and after it was edited, Tan’s current agent, Jessica Woollard at David Higham Associates in London, submitted it widely in the U.S. in late summer 2022.

Daniel Loedel at Bloomsbury preempted. “I had heard of Twan but had never read him,” he says. “I didn’t know his work, and I’ve been sent other Booker authors that I didn’t buy.” (Tan’s debut, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted for the Man Booker; his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the Man Asian.) Despite his past history with Bookers, Loedel says, when he read House of Doors, “I knew I was in the hands of a master. I was immediately floored by the language, the moral complexity and the complexity of the characters. There were so many twists and turns. I was struck by this world and its themes, the lushness of Penang, the way Twan looks at colonialism and sexual repression. It spoke to me on so many levels and felt like a classic.”

Loedel made a six-figure offer for North American rights the next week. The contract was signed in September 2022, and to date the book has sold in seven other territories.

“When Daniel and Twan had their Zoom,” Woollard says, “it was like being in a book club. It was such a pleasure to listen to them talk, how they related and understood each other and the work.”

“I felt lucky when the offer was accepted,” Loedel says. “Twan is a star for us.”