I must admit, I don’t know much about Cambodia or the Khmer Rouge – and therefore Andrew Nette’s debut novel, Ghost Money was a real eye opener for me. It works on many levels – as a history lesson (all the best novels teach you stuff you don’t know), a detective thriller, and a deep explorative character study. Furthermore it is dripping with atmosphere. I know that sounds like a cliché, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the heat, humidity, and smell of South East Asia. While I have to use cliche’s, Nette doesn’t. He lived in Phnom Penh for a few years, and would appear to know the city well, and paints a extremely evocative picture.
The story concerns an ex-cop named Max Quinlan who now works as a detective, tracking down missing persons. In this instance, his case is to track down an Australian businessman named Charles Avery who has disappeared while in the midst of a shady gem stone deal.
As the tale begins, Quinlan, while searching Avery’s hotel apartment in Bangkok, finds the delinquent Australian’s business partner dead. Quinlan suspects Avery of the deed, and clues point to him fleeing to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Quinlan follows the trail, but what he finds is quite a bit more than he bargained for. A normal detective would have cut their losses and returned home safely, but not Quinlan. He is driven by his own demons, and has to see the case through to the end, no matter where it takes him.
At a quick glance, Ghost Money may seem like a stereotypical detective thriller. Anyone who has read Chandler, Spillane, or Corris (as an Australian reference) will recognise the frame work of this story – a missing person case. But that is where the comparison ends. Quinlan doesn’t spout wisecracks. He doesn’t drink. And furthermore comes of second best in every physical encounter (okay he does come out on top once, but only because his opponent falls foul of his own evil scheme – to say more would constitute a spoiler). So while the framework may be familiar to readers of crime fiction, the characters certainly are not. And that is important, as it is the characters who drive the story. Quinlan has his share of back story. He is not a man who arrives on the page, already a hero (that is if you’d call him that). He has flaws and skeletons in his closet. At the end of the book, he is a very different character to the man who started
Once the story kicks into high gear, Quinlan is partnered with a Cambodian named Sarin, who is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and now works as a translator for a local reporter named Gillies. While Quinlan is the driving force in the story, Sarin is its heart. Cambodia is his country, and the events, and changing political climate, are the things he will have to live with, once the story is over – coupling that with his brutal backstory, and a man emerges who is strong, resourceful and resilient – and if one has to call one of the characters a hero, then Sarin is more deserving of the title.
In this day and age, it is not so surprising that a lot of fiction pays homage to the pop-cultural works that have coloured, and possibly influenced the author on his writer’s journey. They can be films, other works of literature, or even songs. There are a few of these references (or in-jokes) in Ghost Money, however author Andrew Nette, never lets them overtake the story. They are subtle nuggets for the knowing. However, I want to touch briefly on the last quarter of the book, which is an intoxicating roller coaster ride, which not only ties up the disparate plot threads, but immerses the reader noirish nether world of music, surreal dream-like images and literary themes. The run home starts, with Jim Morrison name-checked – from there our protagonists are shunted into the deep dark heart of Cambodia in a helicopter. Next comes the journey down river by boat. It may sound like I am describing Apocalypse Now. While Ghost Money is a very different beast from Coppola’s Vietnam allegory, the comparison is not that far fetched. Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the story of one man making a journey into a landscape he doesn’t understand, to find a man, but ultimately confronting his own inner demons, which is equally applicable for Ghost Money.
The wash-up is, Ghost Money is a noirish detective story, the likes of which you’ve never read before. As I said at the top, the framework is something very familiar, but the trip itself is a wild roller-coaster ride that will take you places you’ve never been and teach you things about the world that you were never taught – all of this in a package that’s damnably readable, and thoroughly entertaining.