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In a strange way, Quinlan and Cambodia had history. Memories of his father shouting at their black and white television, on the screen, Asians soldiers, terrified faces under steel helmets too large for their heads, running from an invisible enemy, the sky behind them full of fire and smoke. It was 1975; Max was nine years old. Phnom Penh was about to fall to the Khmer Rouge.
I read a lot of first-time novelists. They constitute maybe thirty, thirty-five percent of my literature intake. It's fine, first timers are beautiful, inspired people who hurl their guts on pages. Plus, reading is about relationships. It's about developing a relationship to a writer you love and evolving alongside each other. Because it's extremely rare that a first novel is an author's best. Reading GHOST MONEY, I was aware it was Andrew Nette's first novel and yet it didn't feel like one. It commits almost none of the mistakes a first novel does. Fiction is the damnest thing to write properly. You can have twenty years of writing experience, the pitfalls of narrative arts could still get you. It's just so different. They didn't get to Andrew Nette though. GHOST MONEY is rich, complex and eerily well-controlled.
Don't let this turn you off, but it's a P.I novel. I'm well-aware they are a dime a dozen, but GHOST MONEY is different. Andrew Nette does the little things that makes his novel stand out in a sea of boring clichés and mindless copycats. His protagonist Max Quinlan is an ex-cop who recycled himself in finding people holing up in South East Asia, mainly Thailand. He is hired Madeline Avery to find her brother Charles, your run-off-the-mill mining scammer (we all know at least one, right?) who vanished recently. The trail stinks from the get go, a Charles Avery's business partner is found murderer in his Bangkok apartment. Shaking down Avery's place afterwards, Quinlan finds a plane itinerary for Phnom Pen, Cambodia. Well, the job is to find the guy, right? So Avery gets in a plane and flies to Cambodia, which at the time * was a wounded land, vulnerable to whoever had means and delusions of power.
Let me go on a rant, here.
I shouldn't be the one, telling you about GHOST MONEY. You should invade my TweetFeed and Facebook Page, saying: ''Ben, what the fuck took you so long? We all read GHOST MONEY already, it's great." It really is excellent and I'm at loss to find a good reason why this didn't hit major success. The ''but it's set in Cambodia'' excuse is bullshit. This novel is a few details close to be a killer dystopian neo-noir. Change 1996 to 2096. Change Cambodia to a random compound country from the future, tweak a few names, add a few flying machines and you get Bladerunner meets The Hunger Games. The setting here is in no way detrimental to the novel's quality. The publishing industry has become stupid like that. They don't want to publish good books anymore, just make money. In the business of dealing books, maybe one would think good books would be a safe bet? Thank God for Snubnose Press and their high standards.
Now, let's talk about that cultural backdrop. It is actually enhancing the story. Mid-nineties Cambodia is a terrific setting for hardboiled fiction. The place was absolutely destroyed and prey to opportunistic megalomaniacs. GHOST MONEY is full of beautiful, broken people who are trying to make a future for themselves, while carrying the ghosts of the past. I'm aware of the dangers of cultural thrillers. They get to be history lessons. Authors bludgeon you with data and things that have nothing to do with what you're reading, interrupting your flow. Andrew Nette doesn't fall in this trap and always links historical data to character development. He goes off the rails a few times, but always rights the ship. Short chapters being very helpful for that purpose.
"Who are we to judge the ways of the human heart," said Bloom. "People come to this fair city for all sorts of reasons: money, drugs, sex, romance, a last chance. Fuck, Phnom Penh is the world capital of last chances."
"Isn't that a contradiction, Harold? I mean, you only get one last chance."
"When you've used up your last chance there's always Cambodia."
There are I think three chapters built around Cambodian people's flashback of the war. By the third, I was bored of it, but it did served a purpose AND the novel was almost over. Another danger of the cultural thriller is the excessive descriptions. Authors tend to make you want to soak in the beauty of an exotic locale. You can't want for the reader that much. Nette indulges a little bit in jarring descriptions, but it quickly gets under control.
All that leads me to the prose and the pacing of the novel **. Hemingway readers will find that Papa is somewhat an elephant in the room. I've spoken with Andrew Nette about that and he assured me he's not an Hemingway reader. I can believe that, but the reason why the manliest writer in history is so strong with this one is that Nette's prose isn't mimetic. It understands how to engineer understatement and how to create beauty from it. You don't read a narrative that deep and self-aware every day. There is also inspiration taken from Lawrence Block's Scudder novels. Quinlan and Scudder are very different, but the form is similar. It's a slow, atmospheric novel that takes its time to craft confrontations that are worth your while and GHOST MONEY has its fair share of memorable moments in that regard.
Last week, I've reviewed Jamie Mason's THREE GRAVES FULL, which I dug for its cleverness and its beautiful prose but I thought lacked stamina and cohesion. No disrespect to Mrs. Mason (she's very good and has a bright future), but I thought GHOST MONEY was better. It understood it's intricate, layered plot better and was well-equipped for the long run. Think of it as a sprinter vs marathon runner confrontation where each ten pages is one kilometers. It all comes back to the maturity of GHOST MONEY as a narrative. It's a first novel, yet it reads like a book from a seasoned Lawrence Block. It's a P.I novel, sure but it's also a book about war and greed and what violence does to the human soul. Despite suffering from minor speed bumps, it's an efficient and satisfying mystery.
FOUR STARS ***
* Novel is set in 1996.
** Sorry about the complete lit-nerdout.
*** Consider it in the Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds' league of almost-five-stars-books. There was just a tiny-little-clincher missing.