Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review of Ghost Money by Andrew Nette (Snubnose Press, 2012)

The mid-1990s and Max Quinlan, the son of an Australian soldier and Vietnamese mother, has left the Victorian police force after messing up a case whilst on secondment to Bangkok, Thailand.  Now he finds himself back in the city hunting for Charles Avery.  His sister and a bunch of Melbourne investors are keen to know what the lawyer turned gem dealer has done with their ten million dollar investment in his latest business venture.  All Quinlan finds in Bangkok is the dead body of Avery’s partner and evidence to suggest that he has fled to Cambodia.  Quinlan heads after him to the city of Phnom Penh trying to pick up his trail.  The country is still finding its feet after the rule of the Khmer Rouge and occupation by the Vietnamese, trying to heal the wounds of genocide and a dysfunctional society.  Hooking up with an Australian journalist and his Cambodian assistant, Quinlan starts to find Avery’s trail.  It's clear, however, that Avery has been dealing with some very dangerous characters, others are hunting for him, and finding him is going to be a fraught process.  Undaunted, Quinlan pushes on, determined to catch-up with his quarry.

Andrew Nette spent a number of years in Cambodia as a journalist in the 1990s and it shows.  The real strength of Ghost Money is the sense of place and historical contextualisation.  Nette drops the reader into the landscape, culture and politics of the country, without it dominating the story, and one gets a real sense of what ordinary people have been through during various regimes and the unsettled legacy they now find themselves in.  And he does a good job at detailing how an outsider such as Quinlan negotiates this complex terrain.  The story itself is a relatively standard search for a missing person who doesn’t want to be found and has got themselves into a situation they can’t handle.  The plot unfolds with some twists and turns as Quinlan homes in on his target, despite the various threats and warnings given to him.  There were a couple of things that didn’t seem to quite sit right, however.  The first was Quinlan’s naivety - he was an experienced ex-cop, yet he wanders into really dangerous situations with no real forethought.  The second was motivation - I couldn’t understand why Quinlan was willing to risk his life to find Avery, a man he has no connection to or affinity with other than he was hired to the job, and why he didn’t just walk away.  In general, the characterisation is fine, though Quinlan and the other central actors were somewhat skin deep, their back story substituting for personality and character at times.  Other than those quibbles, the story rattles along as a real page-turner.  Overall, an entertaining and informative story that gives a real sense of Cambodia in the mid-1990s.

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