Ghost Money, the stunning debut novel by my partner Andrew Nette, was released last week by Snubnose Press. Before I am shouted down as an unreliable reviewer, here’s what others are saying about Ghost Money:
Ghost Money is a fast-paced, atmospheric crime novel. Its journey into a cynical and treacherous world is tense and suspenseful — Garry Disher
Ghost Money is a terrific crime thriller that builds quickly and holds its nerve, right to the final pages. An important addition to the growing canon of outward-looking Australian crime fiction — David Whish-Wilson
Ghost Money could well be The Third Man of Asian Noir — Crime Fiction Lover
Ghost Money is set in Cambodia in 1996 in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is sent to Bangkok in search of missing businessman Charles Avery, only to stumble on to the corpse of Avery’s partner and a trail leading from Avery’s bloodstained apartment to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Quinlan soon learns he’s not the only one after Avery. As an outsider whose Vietnamese features makes him suspect in Cambodia, Quinlan needs help to stand a chance of getting to Avery before the others do. He teams up with local journalist Heng Sarin, and together they move between the freewheeling capital to the battle scarred western borderlands, where the mysteries of Cambodia’s bloody past are magnified by the political intrigues of the present.
Andrew wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 when we were living in Phnom Penh. But as he said in an interview during his Unpublished Manuscript Fellowship at The Wheeler Centre, the story had been inside him for more than a decade.
We first visited Cambodia in 1992 when the United Nations was in charge, civil war still raged throughout much of the country and we had the temples of Angkor practically to ourselves. Four years later, Andrew returned for a few months’ stint as a wire service journalist. While he’d always been fascinated by Cambodia, it was his time there in 1996 that sowed the seeds of the story that ultimately became Ghost Money.
As Andrew says, ‘I always thought Cambodia would be an excellent setting for a crime novel. But I also wanted to capture the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, to write about those people trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choices they made and what they did to survive.’
Even reading Andrew’s manuscript for the fifth or sixth time as partners do, I remained riveted by the plot and moved by the story. The novel combines the pace of the best thrillers with a depth derived from the author’s intimate knowledge of Cambodian politics and his efforts to understand its history.
The characters are credible and vividly realised. One of my personal favourites among a large supporting cast is disgraced Australian businessman-in-exile Harold Bloom.
In his grey safari suit, a large Buddha amulet around his neck, thinning sandy hair and a slight paunch on his otherwise skinny frame, Bloom looked straight out of central casting as the Western expatriate male going to seed after too long in Asia.
The banter between Bloom and Quinlan offers rare moments of levity in an otherwise dark tale.
There are also some wonderful set pieces: a memorable exchange that takes place during a kickboxing match; another in the back rooms of a nightclub in Battambang owned by a dodgy Khmer businessman known as chea theamda phkor tang te rich — ‘the flower that is always in bloom’.
While packing no punches in its depiction of Cambodia’s violent past and present, Ghost Money also pays respect to the resilience of its people, notably in the character of the intelligent and empathetic Sarin, whose ambitions are fettered by his lack of political connections.
‘Things happen there that you couldn’t make up if you tried,’ Andrew says of Cambodia.
Lucky for us he has tried, producing a fiction as strange and compelling as the truth that spawned it.