I always feel a bit squeamish reading crime fiction, doubly so when it’s set in cities I’ve come to know with some level of intimacy. I felt similarly dubious when I started on Andrew Nette’s debut, in which the bulk of the action takes place in Melbourne and Phnom Penh.
There’s a patchy record when it comes to literary representations of Australia’s most self-consciously “cultural” city. Shane Maloney’s crime books tend to work more engaging material out of otherwise clichés, while Christos Tsiolkas—who Nette thanks for reading an early draft—has become the darling of the city’s book clubs for depicting a suburban life in the city as dull and one-dimensional as the people who praise his prose.
Similarly, although crime fiction has taken off in Southeast Asia and new small presses devoted to the genre have popped up in Bangkok and Hong Kong, a lot of the novels being churned out tend to be breathless in their descriptions of the settings, cultivating an exotic appeal for audiences back in the west but in the process creating a highly grating read for the people residing in the places they describe.
Nette’s Ghost Money is refreshing in its deft avoidance of this trap, with the author’s evident fascination with history superseding the need to gild his work with page-filler along the lines of “Cambodia: a land of contrasts where human life is cheap” or the other usual sigh-inducers.
Set in 1996, Ghost Money follows the usual noir formula—a disgraced cop turned private investigator is sent to Cambodia via Bangkok to track down a client’s brother, one of the many fabled westerners who decided to pursue quick coin by setting up shop in the still fractious country after the UNTAC withdrawal.
Informed by his experience as a Cambodia-based journalist in the mid '90s, Nette grapples with recent history in a depth not usually addressed for a country where international perceptions and understanding are still so rigidly fastened to the years before the Vietnamese occupation to the exclusion of everything that followed.
Framed around the defection of Ieng Sary’s forces from Pailin, worsening tensions in the Hun Sen-Ranariddh coalition and the pursuit of a long-lost gold cache shot down in the northwest during the American evacuation of Saigon.
At times it seems as if Nette has bitten off more than he can chew, such as using his protagonist Quinlan’s half-Vietnamese ancestry to provoke insight into the country’s race relations, but in each case the author manages to resist any urge to be didactic and navigate a course with the subtle deference that any decent treatment of the subject matter requires.
In harking back to an era of rampant lawlessness, where Westerners and local officials behaved with an impunity that makes the Cambodia of 2012 look like Alphaville, Ghost Money is an entertaining read for anyone looking for an engaging take on the Phnom Penh of yesterday or in thrall to the stories of the long-termers who lived through it.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at email@example.com