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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Monday, May 19, 2014

Phnom Penh Swarms with the Ghosts of the Killing Fields in Aussie Thriller

335 pages
ISBN: 1484013735
Snubnose Press, Aug. 20, 2012
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

In Ghost Money, Andrew Nette's first novel, ex-cop Max Quinlan is caught between two worlds -- the one in which he was born, Southeast Asia, and the one where he was raised, Australia. It's a precarious place to be stranded, since the one world is filled with crooked politicians, brutal cops and Khmer Rouge thugs while the other's run by Aussies who have written Quinlan off due to his bungling of a Thai drug case.

The one thing both worlds have in common is "Ghost Money." On the Southeast Asian side, it is scrip that is printed to be burned when the dead are buried to clear up their survivors'  outstanding obligations to them. On the Australian side, it is a planeload of gold that crashed during the Vietnam War and is now avidly being sought by gangsters, corrupt officials and the raggedy remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Quinlan, the son of an Australian soldier and a Vietnamese woman, left the police in Australia after his screw-up in Thailand. He now works as a private detective, tracking down people "who don't want to be found," as he tells an associate.

But Quinlan is something of a ghost himself: his experience investigating the Thai drug market led to the hideous death of his partner, a Thai police officer. His psychic scars from the incident have left the former cop saddled with crippling guilt and unable to commit to much of anything.

He is hired to look for a man named Avery by the fellow's sister. Avery, he eventually learns, is an Australian businessman who fled to Thailand and Cambodia after stealing most of ten million in start-up cash for a fraudulent mining operation. But during the collapse of his gemstone business, Avery stumbled across clues to the whereabouts of the missing gold plane.

What's more, Quinlan is not the only person looking for the businessman. A drug dealer named Ray Mainwaring and his vicious Cambodian bodyguard, Vuth, are after the fugitive and so is a woman from the Australian security service named Rachel Hazard. Critical time factors are in play, bumping up the tension level: the old Khmer Rouge responsible for Cambodia's "killing fields" is falling apart, and if the gold is not salvaged before the coalition collapses, it may not be recoverable at all.

Quinlan needs to find Avery first in order to grab the gold for a pair of Cambodians, Sarin and his sister, Rachana, who need the money to escape from their war-ravaged country.  He also needs the psychological boost that bringing the case to a successful conclusion will give him. Without it he is doomed to continue his ghost-like existence, haunted by his brutal memories of the past.

Andrew Nette
Nette, one of the editors of Crime Factory, a cracking Australian magazine of noir and hard-boiled fiction, paints a picture of steamily exotic Indochina that will have the sweat pouring from your brow and your clothing plastered to your body. He does an excellent job of bringing Thailand and Cambodia into sharp focus without using a word that doesn't move his narrative forward.

The landscape he creates is populated by chiselers and crooks who are quick on the trigger-finger and heedless of how many innocent bystanders they mow down while trying to kill Quinlan and intimidate the few souls willing to help him.

Nette's economy at sketching a scene is remarkable. At one point he is recruiting a shady fellow named Bloom to assist his inquiries in Phnom Penh, and he comments on the men prowling the city for prostitutes:

"'Check out those two,' Quinlan motioned to his left where two Caucasian men in tight acid wash jeans and T-shirts were talking to a couple of bar girls, large backpacks at their feet. 'So keen to get laid they haven't even checked into a hotel yet.'"

At another juncture, he follows a pair of gangsters to a nightclub where they are going to meet some Khmer Rouge ruffians.

"Quinlan had no idea where the Las Vegas Club was, but the first [foot cab driver] he hailed did. It was a large building on Sihanouk Boulevard, another of the city's main thoroughfares. Four-wheel drives and motorbikes cluttered the footpath out front. A large notice at the entrance informed guests no guns, grenades, knives or cameras were allowed on the premises."

Sounds like a fun place to while away your leisure hours, doesn't it?

In another location, Quinlan observes a retail market in commercial lust. "He'd never seen sex sold so publicly or on such a scale. [Rue Pasteur] was one long open air brothel, shopfront after shopfront of beer bars and karaoke clubs, crude partitions visible to the rear, women -- many in pyjamas -- sitting on chairs out front. . . Father of bacteriology, Louis Pasteur, was no doubt spinning in his grave at having had his name bestowed on a street where germs were exchanged on a nightly basis with such impunity."

Nette handles the history of the wartime period neatly, letting various characters fill in the past by telling each other portions of the back story, just as they would in normal conversation. This keeps the historical material in digestible chunks while using it to maintain the flow of the narrative instead of bogging it down. The result is a story that winds on at a steady clip, explaining everything that needs to be clarified while giving readers more than enough grisly action to maintain their interest.

But Nette's real triumph is in filling his novel with a group of unique characters that are vivid and interesting, not one-dimensional mannequins that seem to melt together when the reader closes the book. Even minor characters who have few spoken lines -- none of which are in English -- come up off the page as living, breathing beings. It is a remarkable achievement.

Much crime fiction is geographically rooted, giving a sense of a particular area and the people who live there. The worst of the genre unfolds in settings that are so vague and indistinct the action could be happening just about anywhere.

Nette has managed to put his reader into the steaming and humid cityscapes of Thailand and Cambodia, a setting that most Americans would have difficulty imagining on their own. That alone would make Ghost Money worth reading. Add a solid and credible plot and a roster of villains for whom violence is second nature and you have a book that is truly remarkable.

Top it off with a hero who truly stands out from the crowd and you have something extraordinary. That's Ghost Money, a first-rate read that you would never guess was a first novel.

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