Friday, September 11, 2015

Ghost Money by Andrew Nette

Using the thriller or crime novel as a means to explore a particular place and historical epoch can be a precarious business.  On the one hand, there is the danger that the historical detail will overwhelm the narrative's drive and suspense.  We've all read thrillers that get lost in the thickets of period research.  The story's pace slows; the author seems to be letting you know he went to a lot of trouble to gather, study, digest, and regurgitate the information before you.  On the other hand, the thriller author runs the risk of appearing to use a grim setting - Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin - merely for sensationalism and light entertainment.  We get action set against a blithely presented atrocity exhibition.  Actually, I'd rather read the second type of novel more than the first.  At least the pulpy approach can be fun, and the book will probably move fast.  But better than either approach is the seamlessly blended historical crime tale, the one where the researched information is folded into a propulsive, compelling narrative.  It's a blend difficult to pull off, but for the most part, Andrew Nette accomplishes it in his 2012 novel Ghost Money, set in Cambodia in 1996.

The plot is clear and engrossing.  The sister of a shady Australian businessman named Charles Avery hires Max Quinlan, an ex-cop from Australia, to find her brother.  Quinlan himself had a Vietnamese mother and Australian father, making him something of an outsider wherever he goes.  He picks up Avery's trail in Thailand and that trail leads at once to Cambodia, where Avery has apparently been involved in dark business dealings with members of the Khmer Rouge.  Out of power for seventeen years, since arch-enemy Vietnam invaded Cambodia and pushed them out, the Khmer Rouge has remained a potent and fearful force all this time, and they've been surviving by selling timber and mined gems along the Thai-Cambodian border.  By now, however, a significant chunk of the movement has defected and wants to abandon hiding and exile.  Cambodian Co-Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member, is open to the possibility. He'll negotiate with them.  So the country sits on edge, at a defining moment in its blood-soaked modern history, when Quinlan arrives to do his investigative work.  

In a country this byzantine, that has a language he doesn't know, Quinlan needs assistance.  He finds it in the form of a Cambodian journalist called Sarin.  Both men carry their traumas with them - Quinlan's are personal (he had an alcoholic father who killed himself; while a cop, his own arrogance got a fellow cop killed), and Sarin's are historical (he survived the horror of Khmer Rouge rule, but he acquired the inevitable mental scars that go with such a survival) - and while dealing with their anxieties and fears, they have to contend with the outside dangers arising from their quest to find Avery.   Whether Western or Cambodian, the man's acquaintances were not exactly polite types, and these people want to track him down as much as Quinlan does.  On every level, from the intimate to the societal, it's a treacherous, hazard-filled world Nette depicts, and reading his book evoked some of the feeling I love to get when reading a novel by Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. These two were absolute masters at integrating crime and espionage plots into political and historical contexts, and Nette has learned a good bit from them.  Certainly there are echoes of Greene's The Third Man in Ghost Money's plot, and the hunt for the shadowy Avery, leading Quinlan from the man's sister to the dense Cambodian jungle, has a Heart of Darkness vibe.  Two or three times, Nette pauses the narrative flow to fill us in on recent Cambodian history and how the country came to be where it is by 1996, but these sections only serve to enhance the novel.  We need to know what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period in order to understand why the characters act the way they do and why the country Max Quinlan travels through is as idiosyncratic, and haunted by ghosts, as indeed it is.  This is a crime novel about people caught up in history and how they adapt or fail to adapt to the burdens and terrors of that history.  Ghost Money is a serious entertainment, and it's well worth any reader's time.