GHOST MONEY - Andrew Nette

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Start out reading GHOST MONEY and you're quickly immersed in a tight, tough, noir story set mostly in Cambodia. But don't be surprised if at some point, you also find yourself right smack bang in the middle of a history lesson and a subtle exploration of racial politics.

Knowing a little of Nette's interest in pulp fiction, I confess that the taut, noir stylings of GHOST MONEY didn't come as any surprise whatsoever, so for this reader, what was most rewarding about the book was the unexpected complexity of the central character, Max Quinlan. As well as one hell of a plot that just does ... not ... let ... go.

In a testament to the power of the storytelling there's something very matter-of-fact about the son of a Vietnamese woman and an Australian Vietnam vet as an ex-cop, a specialist in finding people who would rather stay lost. It also seems to go without saying that Quinlan, despite his lack of extensive PI experience, and his own misgivings, would find himself in SE Asia looking for the once successful Melbourne lawyer Charles Avery. Who is now a missing, dodgy gems trader whose sister wants to know what happened to her brother. It doesn't come as any surprise at all that Quinlan would follow the clues to post Khmer Rouge Cambodia and right smack bang into the madness of a country still recovering from the extremes of that regime.

What's also frighteningly matter-of-fact and at the same time very revealing, is the nature of the world in which Quinlan moves. The tension between Cambodian and Vietnamese, the vulnerability of people in a society that's been so brutalised, the casual way in which life is regarded as dispensable, and the greed and self-interest. Quinlan survives because of his own background, because he can read people, because he can see things and people for exactly what they are. And because he's careful about who he allows to get close.

It's one thing to know the theoretical history of a place, it's another completely to see the outcomes from within, to experience the result from the point of view of a direct observer or participant. That is part of what's so clever about GHOST MONEY. In the character of Quinlan, Nette has created a very realistic dichotomy. A man with an Asian look, yet his knowledge of his Vietnamese mother is non-existent. Australian raised, by a man who was profoundly damaged. Thai speaking, but looking enough Vietnamese to be regarded as suspicious by the Cambodians, there's so much about this man that demonstrates perfectly the complexities of the Vietnamese / Cambodian / Australian experience. Pairing him with Sarin, a Cambodian who has had direct and devastating experience of the Khmer Rouge, who remains in his damaged and difficult country, desperately trying to find a way to continue to survive, he's realistic and considered. He's all too aware of the difference between the reality and western perception of Cambodia, he's not an observer, he is the experience.

Great characters are one thing, but stick them into a plot that is not just realistic, but tight and fast moving, and frankly, nerve-racking, and something else starts to happen. Again, there was something so matter-of-fact about the lows that people will sink to when it comes to greed and self-interest, the way that loyalties shift and personal gain remains paramount that was chilling, especially when you match that up with the extreme violence of whatever it takes to win attitudes.  Fingers crossed GHOST MONEY is the start of a new series.

Year of Publication

Ghost Money is set in Cambodia in the mid-ninties, when the long-running Khmer Rouge insurgency was fragmenting and the country’s rival coalition parties were in conflict with each other from for dominance. Missing in the chaos is businessman Charles Avery. Hired to find him is Vietnamese Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan. Quinlan’s search will take him from Phnom Penh to the country’s border with Thailand and plunge him into a mystery that plunges him into the heart of Cambodia’s bloody past.

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