Cambodia 1996: PI Max Quinlan arrives in town to find missing, and very dodgy, businessman Charles Avery. Welcome to Ghost Money and the heart of existential darkness.
The book (which can be purchased here) has a marvellous opening: Max finds a body on the floor of Avery’s Bangkok apartment, battered to death by Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Very quickly it’s established that it isn’t Avery, but if not Avery, then who? And where’s Avery? As legions of Asia-noir writers from Chris Moore on down keep telling me, Bangkok is Ground Zero for danger and amoral sleaze, but it’s too law-abiding for Avery: he’s flown to Cambodia…
Cambodia in the mid-90s. I wasn’t there, I arrived in 2002, which, the true old-timers tell me, was far too late, but Nette’s Phnom Penh ambiance is convincingly realistic. The police still hang around on corners doing nothing (not quite nothing – when the boss needs cash they collect improvised fines from anyone unlucky enough to catch their eye), kids still beg on the Riverside and whores minister to the needs of terminally lonely drifters at Sharkey’s, and by golly Max stays at the old Hotel International – the building’s still there, though it’s not a hotel any more.
Hotel Intercontinental, 2008, from Andy Brouwer’s blog
Andy tells me it’s since been tarted up beyond recognisability.
I love Max, a man born right in the middle of a modern multicultural identity crisis, his father a dysfunctional Australian cop, his mother Vietnamese but Max never knew her, and though Max looks Asian he doesn’t speak Vietnamese, nor Khmer, but he does speak Thai. The supporting actors are pretty compelling too, especially Sarin the Cambodian interpreter, psychically scarred by the Pol Pot years, trying to find a way to survive in the new Cambodia. We all know a couple of Sarins. Add a varied gallery of expat chancers (“When you’ve used up your last chance there’s always Cambodia” – I can hear Bogie muttering that out the corner of his mouth) and you have Phnom Penh then and now.
Bogie at Sharky: “We’ll always have Cambodia”
There’s a thoughtful review of Ghost Money here, and the book has been frequently and favourably reviewed on Goodreads. One reader, struck by the long shadow the Khmer Rouge cast over the story, comments that “most accounts of the war in Cambodia treat it as a cola to the Vietnam conflict” – a cola? But we know what he means.
Nette’s been compared with Lawrence Block, and that’s high praise indeed. Andrew Nette is a go-to man on pulp fiction – his website, called pulpcurry (don’t ask me why) is a treasure. His personal profile on Goodreads says:
Andrew Nette is a writer, reviewer, film-lover and pulp scholar, based in Melbourne, Australia. His first novel, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties, was recently republished by Hong Kong based publisher, Crime Wave Press. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, forthcoming from Verse Chorus Press in 2015. He is one of the founders of Crime Factory Publications, a small Melbourne-based press specialising in crime fiction. He co-edits its magazine Crime Factory, and co-edited Hard Labour, an anthology of Australian short crime fiction, and LEE, an anthology of fiction inspired by American cinema icon Lee Marvin. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications, including Beat to a Pulp Hardboiled 3, Shotgun Honey Presents: Both Barrels, Blood and Tacos, The One That Got Away, Phnom Penh Noir and Crime Factory Hard Labour.
Sharky Bar (from Nana Journals)
In case you’re wondering about that reference to Sharky Bar, it features as the meeting place between Max and an informant in one of the early chapters, though not named. Personally I would have named it. It’s a lot tamer now than it was back in Max’s day.