Ghost Money (Andrew Nette)

I must admit to being initially interested in reading this novel because Andrew Nette and I follow each other on Twitter, and I’ve always appreciated, and been curious about, his obsession with pulp culture.

I knew he wrote crime fic and I am a total sucker for many shades of crime fic.

It was when I read one of the first reviews of the book (by Fair Dinkum Crime’s bernadetteinoz), however, that I dashed off straight away to buy a copy.

The triggers that set me off in bernadetteinoz’s review?

A Vietnamese Australian protagonist, the Cambodian setting – all bundled together as a noir crime thriller. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

Kicking off with a dead body in Thailand, we find ourselves quickly in Cambodia as Max Quinlan, a fresh private investigator, traces Charles Avery’s whereabouts. Avery’s sister had made the initial approach to Quinlan, and offered him a conversational snapshot of her brother as an ambitious and morally grey character.

Of course, all is not as it seems, and the increasingly complicated figure of Avery is nicely unpacked as the narrative rolls out.

I read this book very fast. The novel’s pace never slackens, even as it weaves back and forth in time and provides the narrative backstory for various characters. The teasing inaccessibility of Quinlan’s story until more than halfway through was well handled, with the lingering consequences of it credibly driving Max’s actions and explaining the weight of his guilt. After withholding Max’s past for so long, Nette presents a fitting gravity to that backstory.

I found the increasingly hapless character of Quinlan an oft-times frustrating anti-hero. His naivety about the depth of danger he was in, and the clumsiness with which he went about his business, made me cringe as the novel went on. This element added plenty of tension, though, with my expectations about what might happen continually shunted in other directions. I had no idea what he was going to get himself into, or – more importantly – how he would get himself out of life-threatening situations.

I loved the character of Sarin, the editorial assistant who turns into much more than that. Nette has a deft touch with the cultural nuance of characters and avoids (or plays with) clichés. I must admit to being wary of narratives   about ‘Australians in Asia’, mostly because of the traditionally Orientalising and exoticised attitudes towards local communities from various authors; whether the manner is positive or negative, the textual effect is to make the ‘locals’ into genericised (harmless or threatening) masses. Nette, however, gave me no cause for frowning, and many opportunities for happy engagement. There were a few passages that verged on being history textbook material, but I forgave them this because it was usually embedded in a convincing context.

With all crime novels, I wonder whether the story will end with a bang or a whimper.

The way that Ghost Money finished up? One of the best things about a book in which I’d already found much to like!

I won’t spoil you, though I’m itching to do so. All I’ll say is that the ending was a very satisfying surprise.