You guys know by now that I'm a sucker for original idea. It doesn't have to involve wild variables like aliens or have obvious mythological undertones. No, sometimes, just steering away from the established path will do. Andrew Nette's new novel GHOST MONEY does just that, by setting up the action in mid-nineties Cambodia, which at the time was a dying totalitarian regime. Fuck me. Isn't that a curve ball or what? I'll read about that noir in a political wasteland soon and so should you by ordering GHOST MONEY from Amazon. You should also pay him a visit at his place Pulp Curry, because he's actually an internet-person with something interesting to say. Since I'm a busy bumble bee this week, Andrew accepted to step in and explain to us the challenged of writing crime fiction in Asia. Now excuse me, as I'm going to rewatch the episodes of SURVIVING DISASTER and drink gallons of coffee.
My debut novel Ghost Money is set in Cambodia the mid-nineties, the point at which the long-running Khmer Rouge insurgency started to fragment and the country was torn by political instability.
It’s the story of a disillusioned Vietnamese Australian ex-cop called Max Quinlan, who is hired to find an Australian businessman, Charles Avery, missing in the chaos. It soon becomes clear Avery has made dangerous enemies and Quinlan is not the only one looking.
To my knowledge, it is also one of a relatively small number of hardboiled crime fiction books written set in Asia.
And if that surprises you, let me assure you I share the sentiment.
I’ve sat patiently through the hype about Scandinavian crime fiction, which shows no sign of abating, thinking people will discover Asia as a fascinating place to set dark and hardboiled crime novels, but there’s hardly been a stampede of interest.
There are exceptions. Christopher G Moore has been writing books featuring his Bangkok-based American PI, Vincent Calvino since the early nineties. Low profile author, Martin Limon, has written seven books featuring Sueno and Bacom, officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the US military based in South Korea.
You could probably add a few more to the list and, slowly, more books are being set in Asia. But, like I say, hardly a stampede.
The situation is even more acute when once thinks of hardboiled crime fiction, indeed, any kind of crime fiction written by Asians themselves. With the exception of material coming out of Japan, Singapore and India, there’s not a lot out there.
I don’t have any definitive answers why this is the case, but I have a few ideas.
In countries like China, it’s a case of crime fiction and authoritarian governments not mixing. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction because it is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.
A Chinese author friend once told me foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular, because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.
There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China. The best known of these is Qui Xialong, whose character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.
Another reason for the lack of locally produced crime fiction is life is already pretty hardboiled or noir, for want of better ways of putting it, for a lot of people in the region.
When I first travelled to Cambodia in 1992, it was a poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.
Phnom Penh was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists. The streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms, victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge casts a shadow over everything.
It remained that way for much of the nineties, while I was working on and off as a journalist.
A lot had changed when I returned for the year in 2008. The Khmer Rouge insurgency was over, its main leaders on trial for war crimes. The streets of Phnom Penh were full of luxury cars. Tourists could get a shiatsu massage in their ozone neutral hotel, then head out for tapas and cocktails.
On another level, a lot hadn’t. The same people still ran things and the methods they used hadn’t altered. Corruption, land grabbing and even murder are all carried out with shocking impunity by local elites.
Understandably, there’s not a lot of interest on the part of the locals in reading crime fiction. They can just pick up a newspaper and read about it.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this situation profoundly influenced how I researched and wrote my book, Ghost Money.
What does it mean for the story and characters when your crime fiction is set in a country where corruption and extreme violence are regular features of everyday life and the term ‘criminal’ is often simply a label applied by the local elite to anyone who tries to assert their rights? For that matter, what does it mean when elements of the state itself that is the major criminal actor?
These are some of the issues I’ve tried to deal with in Ghost Money. The book is a crime story, but it’s also about the broken country Cambodia was in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choice they make, what they have to do to survive.
And they’re themes I’m keen to explore in more depth in future work.