Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Sun, 19/08/2012 – 20:40

Right from the first page of Andrew Nette’s debut crime novel, Ghost Money, I knew I was in for a wild-arse read – thrown headlong into the hustle of Bangkok, where a savage murder has taken place. Max Quinlan, a specialist in finding people who don’t want to be found, is searching for Charles Avery, a once successful Melbourne lawyer who’s gone into the SE Asia gems trade. Avery’s sister wants him back, but Quinlan doesn’t have much to work with. The rumour is that Avery’s gone across the border to Cambodia, and Quinlan sets off after him, knowing little about the country except what he remembers from watching television as a kid – the familiar images of the Vietnamese invasion and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields.

Going on instinct and clues gleaned from Avery’s apartment, it’s soon made clear to Quinlan that Charles Avery is into some serious shit. Cambodia is rebuilding and the poverty and desperation are right in his face. So is a vicious Australian with a history of covert ops and smack trading, and his Cambodian gangster mate. Max Quinlan is tough and determined, skills honed on the job back when he was a cop, but the realities of life in Cambodia serve to remind him that the locals play by different rules, and that there’s a whole lot going on behind the surface.

This is a great feature of Nette’s writing, in a language that is always taut, tough and restrained – the revealing of the layers of meaning behind the surface of things. That the only way for Quinlan to get a lead on Avery is to put himself in harms way, like the goat in the clearing that draws the tiger, adds to the suspense and gives the plot it’s wild momentum. Life is cheap and the powerful have succeeded because they are the most cunning, and most violent, and Quinlan is vulnerable on his own. What saves Quinlan from the grip of the Cambodian gangsters and bent military types and regional warlords – some of them hard men who ‘look like they’d been plucked from somewhere primitive’ is his ability to read people and quickly adapt. As a half-Vietnamese Australian he understands that the ignorance and boorishness of most other foreigners is an impediment to their seeing into the realities of the situation, the only kind of knowledge that will save him. That the only other foreigners who seem to thrive in Cambodia are the psychopathic and those so diminished by their appetites for drugs and sex that they are no longer worthy of anybody’s respect – and are therefore harmless – makes Quinlan’s decision to befriend Sarin, a young Cambodian man working as a journo’s assistant, the clever option.

Sarin is a terrific character, damaged but resilient, wise to the larger forces that shape Cambodia’s present but also wisely sceptical about western perceptions of the place, something that allows Nette to hang the brutal recent history of the country on a narrative that doesn’t allow for stereotypes or romanticisms or simple truths. Nette’s characters are all well-drawn and humanised – the larger historical and political narrative is always played out on a human scale. In particular, Sarin helps Quinlan negotiate the deeper currents of the double-world that would otherwise destroy him. The ghost money of the title is used in both Chinese funerary practices but also as a means of threatening others with violence, and is a good metaphor for Quinlan’s navigations through a clandestine realm where information is the currency, but it’s deadly to seek or possess. These are the tried and true elements of crime fiction at play here, but in the complexity of a Cambodia that is threatening to fall apart – every consequence is amplified, and the wrong decision is squared with swift and deadly force. There is torture. There is assault rifle gunplay. There is arson and massacre. There are also moments of surprising tenderness. Quinlan’s mission started out clear, but he is inevitably drawn into the broader conflict. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge are still operating out of well-defended northern holdfasts, and living off wealth generated from the sale of emeralds. There is talk of peace, but the instability in the country only fuels the greed of both cynical opportunists and those who have suffered so long, for so little.  With Sarin’s help, Quinlan learns to survive in the hard school of the Cambodian underworld – perhaps because he too is a man with a dark secret – in a country that attracts those ‘who’ve used up all their chances’.

Ghost Money is a terrific crime thriller that builds quickly and holds its nerve, right to the final pages. The ending is as surprising as it is clever, and it stayed with me for days. An important addition to the growing canon of outward-looking Australian crime fiction, I get the feeling that Ghost Money is part of an intended series, and I’m hoping that the next one isn’t far over the horizon.

Available as an e-book from Snubnose Press –