Max Quinlan is a PI on the trail of a shady Australian businessman who’s gone to ground in Southeast Asia. Quinlan, a half Vietnamese, half Australian ex-cop, has only recently taken up the detective mantle but he quickly becomes embroiled in post-war shenanigans in a 1996 Phnom Penh that is populated by shady characters, both foreign and local. He teams up with a Cambodian journalist and trawls back in time, through the UNTAC years, the long civil war, the Vietnamese liberation, the Khmer Rouge genocide and the Killing Fields.
Quinlan is a contradictory guy, an ex-copper who blushes when spoken to by an Asian woman but can’t get his clothes off quick enough with a girl from Central America. He is in almost-denial of his Asian heritage and he absorbs Cambodia’s tragic history from a number of sources like a sponge without ever falling into the cynicism one might expect from his kind.
There is plenty of action, especially in the second half of the book, as Quinlan edges closer to Cambodia’s heart of darkness, the nexus between a beleaguered Khmer Rouge and shameless foreign businessmen – the last game in town, in this instance Pailin, a Khmer Rouge hold-out near the Thai border, an independent economic zone that finances itself by selling gem stones and offering every vice known to man, precisely the kind of thing the Cambodian revolution had tried to eradicate only a couple of decades earlier.
Writing a crime novel set in this sad and violent Cambodia without delving into the country’s extreme history is impossible. Nette knows his shit when it comes to the bloody convolutions of the Southeast Asian kingdom and spins a gripping yarn of greed and madness in the late 20th century. While feeding the reader with the horrors of our time, he also finds the space to skillfully reward us with the conventions of the genre – memorable femmes fatales, effective bad guys, and not just one, fast action and lively dialogue. Quinlan, our man in Cambodia, beaten and pushed, cornered and outgunned, takes it all in his stride, ready, for a sequel to Ghost Money, apparently.