This is the story of how solicitor Yang-May Ooi suddenly saw that the workaday world of construction – power, conflict, corruption – could be transformed into the plot of a hit novel …
For an industry brimming with in-built conflict, the fictional possibilities of the construction business remain sadly untapped. Apart from Philip Kerr's Gridiron, thriller-lovers have little chance of finding an industry drama on the bookshelves next to all the courtroom, pathology and banking blockbusters. But now, readers in search of a real muddy boots and bare-knives tale of a construction project have a new name to look for – Yang-May Ooi.

Her first novel featured a ruthless contractor, an evil quantity surveyor, and a weak-willed architect, all blackening the name of their respective professions as they rig the tender and cut ever-wider corners. As the author of such a cynical take on the industry, it is alarming to realise that Ooi knows what she is talking about. When she is not writing, Ooi advises housing associations on their development programmes as a solicitor at City-based Trowers & Hamlins.

Ooi is anxious to reassure all the real-life construction consultants she has worked with that the characters in The Flame Tree are drawn from her imagination rather than from jottings in her little black book. But she is not able to put such a distance between the corruption in the plot and the temptations evident in the real world: "It is out there; we read about it. We all have the potential to do things to further our own ambitions – and it usually comes down to money." The multimillion-pound construction project that drives the plot of Ooi's thriller is the kind of folie de grandeur that flourished in the Far East a few years ago. A new university campus-cum-economic symbol is to rise from the Malaysian rainforest, and British contractor Jordan Cardale is determined to build it. The firm's lawyer, and the book's heroine, Jasmine Lian – Malaysian-born and UK-educated like her creator – finds herself locked in a professional relationship with an increasingly devious client.

The three main elements in The Flame Tree – visionary construction project, career-focused Chinese-Malaysian heroine and exotic setting – are all subjects close to Ooi's heart. She says they suddenly snapped into focus as the plot of a novel four years ago, when Ooi, now 36, was wondering what had become of her youthful ambition to publish a novel by the time she was 30. To be fair to her own ambition and to her employer, she decided to take the "terrifying" step of resigning from Trowers & Hamlins. "I don't practice extreme sports, but this was the equivalent in terms of exhilaration," she laughs.

I don’t practice extreme sports, but this was the equivalent in terms of exhilaration

She spent 18 months on her creation, disciplining herself to write 2000-3000 words a day. A synopsis of the completed manuscript was sent to three literary agents, who each expressed interest. Ooi's chosen agent then contacted publishers, again with unanimously favourable responses. "I think it was some kind of fluke," the author says modestly. Hodder & Stoughton published the novel in hardback at the end of last year, then brought it out in paperback in the summer, since when it has sold virtually all of the first print run. Ooi then completed her second novel – Mind Game, due for publication next March – before resuming her legal career.

A construction project, no matter how glamorous, seems unlikely material for a thriller, but Ooi says she wanted to convey some of the drama she witnessed in her working life, when human ingenuity transforms a mess of mud into a finished building. "You have a wonderful plan of something that doesn't exist except in the architect's head. Then you get the team together, they go to work on a site that was nothing but desolation, then a few years later you have something amazing." In the book, however, there is no easy fast-forward between the architect's design and the completed building. Everything from the structural design to the environmental impact assessment is realistically described, including the site visits where the heroine finds she is the only woman present; just as, at some meetings in Ooi's own working life, "there's a level of communication that I'm not a part of".

Petite yet forceful, it is hard to imagine Ooi feeling at a loss in any company, and easy to imagine her polishing off the other side's objections before lunch. At the same time, her imagination and literary talent are also evident, as she drops into conversation the kind of neatly phrased observations that could find their way unedited into the next novel. In fact, she foresees her two careers running side by side, enjoying the "marketplace" she missed when she resigned, and developing novels three and four in the evenings and weekends.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? I’m in a long-term relationship. What books do you like reading? I love Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham. But I‘ve also got a serious side – I like Isabelle Allende and I’m reading the autobiography of the Dalai Lama. What advice would you give to anyone with a half-finished manuscript? Just do it. What’s the best Malaysian restaurant in London? There aren’t any – at least not if you know what Malaysian food is supposed to taste like. What’s the one Malaysian dish everyone should try? Laksa – curried noodles. What do you think of the Petronas Towers? They’re great. They look like gladiators watching over the city.