GHOST MONEY by Andrew Nette
I believe that to be better travellers, we must know about the history of the places we visit. Ghost Money, a crime novel by Australian writer Andrew Nette, helps do the trick for Cambodia, the popular culture way. Pulp, to be precise. It paints a vivid, fluid description of the country in the mid 1990s, when Cambodia started to recover from the deadly domination of the Khmer Rouge. Ghost Money takes the reader by hand and help him wade through the darkness of Southeast Asia most unfortunate country’s recent past.
The prose slowly unearths important historical details, and it feels like a candle that’s been raised up high to keep the obscurity at bay. As we are pulled into the darkness by the firm grip of a narration that never seems to let go of our neck, we get to discover so much more about a Cambodia that’s gone past.
If protagonist Max Quinlan were a Chinese, he’d be called a “banana”: yellow outside, but white inside. A product of a Vietnamese-Australian lost relationship, Max is an ex-cop turned sour the way green apples do. His soul is definitely less white trash than a bogan’s, but is inevitably trapped inside an Australasian cocoon disguised for yellow skin. Such an interesting take on an otherwise quite clichéd sour ex-cop stereotype elevates Quinlan from the moshpit of decadent white detectives who lost their minds trying to negotiate the underbelly of Asia’s most terrifying literary cities. Regardless, also Max’s private life has started to smell like sulphur after things got out of control during an international post in Bangkok. Now, the man’s got to scrap off a living by locating missing people. And that’s exactly how he ends up on the mystery trail of Charles Avery, an Australian expat who’s disappeared without a trace, last stop Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At least, that’s where the evidence Quinlan finds in a Bangkok third-rate hotel room suggests – completed by the stench of a dead body with a cracked skull, nonetheless -. Hence, potentially to try to curb a haunting mistake of the past, our mixed-blood private eye trusts his gut feelings, and doesn’t think twice before getting on the next plane to Phnom Penh.
Ghost Money is like that: it starts with a frontal bang, then puts the car in reverse, slowly returns in the initial position, and pushes the pedal to the metal until it crashes against the wall once again. And again. Until Max Quinlan will piece together the parts of a lunatic puzzle using a golden thread of secrets and lies… and I am not going to spoil anymore of the plot.
If you like a good crime story that’s able to evoke the palm fringed, foul smelling Cambodian avenues and line them up with shady characters as if you’d just finished playing with an Ouija board, well, you’ve found a winner here. And a bunch of spirits willing to tell you some inconvenient Cambodian truths under their breath.
It all works so recklessly well that I am forced to recommend Ghost Money to all of those travellers, armchair and otherwise, who are thinking about visiting Cambodia for the first time. This book can help take a first bite of the country’s sweet-sour taste, masking it under an intricately woven shroud of fiction. A bite from an apple injected with black blood, a proper aftertaste of genocide. Completed by the acrid smell of cigarettes burnt on the tip of a dry tongue. A sizzingly exciting Asia noir read not to miss.