Early on in Ghost Money, I highlighted this line, hoping it would summarise the entire book: “He was probably just a drunk with a knack for a good story, but he spoke fluent Thai and had amassed local knowledge and contacts that had proved useful.” I’m still unsure on the “drunk” part, but Nette has and shares a broad familiarity of Cambodia’s political climate in 1996, and absolutely has a knack for a good story in this, the tale of a former police officer turned private investigator after his professional career ends in literal and gruesome flames. Vietnamese-Australian Max Quinlan is sent by wealthy Australian Madeleine Avery to track down her not-entirely-trustworthy brother Charles in Thailand, where things take an immediately bloodthirsty turn and Quinlan finds information that traces Avery to Cambodia. There, in a place still raw from the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign over the country, he follows the arrows that point to Avery, leans on every contact, revels in the country’s misty beauty and dense sadness, and is in perilous danger at virtually every moment.
Andrew Nette is a reviewer and lover of all things pulp—see Pulp Curry for numerous excellent examples—and his expansive knowledge of such things makes for a story that has every beat in the right place. Dead bodies, villains, guns, gems, scenes from a boxing fight, blazing infernos, last-minute reprieves—it’s a cinematic experience, visually arresting the whole way through, from city to shacks to jungle and any tiki bar inbetween. But he anchors this in a real world, where the dames are humans instead of one-liners on endless legs, and the villains can be as damaged by Cambodia’s history as the heroes are. Max himself is both well-drawn enough to be a character you want to spend time with, yet is skilfully held back somewhat—an immersive written experience that makes you feel, despite the third-person narrative, as if you are Max: I was surprised at myself when he reacted in ways I wouldn’t, so engaged I was in his life.
As someone who suffers from fight fatigue in literature and movies (I’m looking at you, Marvel movies), I loved the final denouement and its accompanying tension—don’t read this in a doctor’s surgery when you’re about to get your blood pressure taken—and not knowing who might end up shot, dead, or worse by the end. If anything, I could have done with more of the nights leading up to the moment, with Quinlan and his reliable and relatable cohort Sarin as they survive through what may be their last nights on earth. I’m still more pleased to be left wanting more than rolling my eyes at a laboured ending and pushing books (or in this case my alarmingly expensive tablet) off my bed in a sulk (which I have been known to do).
You can and probably should get Ghost Money here. If you find some literal ghost money on your doorstep, you should probably run.