Andrew Nette is one of the editors and founders of Crime Factory, and the author of GHOST MONEY, from Snubnose Press. I'm happy to have him here at Psycho Noir today, talking about one of the major influences on his work.
Ghosts of Cambodia
Ask someone to name an exotic location to set a crime novel and most people would probably answer Scandinavia or perhaps Africa or Latin America.
I could be wrong, but I’d guess few people would say Asia. This could be why there are so few crime novels set in the region, even fewer noir or hardboiled novels.
My debut novel Ghost Money is an exception.
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 and somewhat fucked up Vietnamese Australian ex-cop called Max Quinlan. Quinlan is hired to find an Australian businessman, Charles Avery, missing in the chaos of Cambodia. It soon becomes clear Avery has made dangerous enemies and Quinlan is not the only one looking.
When I wrote the first draft in 2008, there was even less crime fiction set in Asia than there is now, and hardly anything featuring Cambodia.
One exception was Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, by Christopher G Moore. Moore is the doyen of Bangkok’s large expatriate crime-writing scene. Since the early nineties, he has been writing books featuring the Bangkok-based American PI, Vincent Calvino. Most are set in Thailand, although Moore has also taken his character to Vietnam and Cambodia.
His Cambodia book, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, is my favourite. Calvino has been employed by a shady businessman to find a grifter gone to ground in Phnom Penh. Accompanying the PI is his regular off-sider Prachai Congwatana, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Thai police.
But my major influence for writing Ghost Money is a little known 2002 film by Matt Dillon called City of Ghosts.
It’s not a great film, but having worked on and off as a journalist in Phnom Penh in the nineties and again in 2008, it’s a vivid depiction of a country that is quickly changing in the face of rapid, if very uneven, economic development.
Jimmy (Dillon) is a long con artist who grows a conscience after the fake insurance company he’s been fronting forfeits on claims to the survivors of a hurricane. In order to get his share of the proceeds from the scam and escape the clutches of the FBI, Jimmy travels from New York to Thailand where Marvin (James Caan), his mentor and the brains behind their operation has fled.
Landing in Bangkok, Jimmy meets up with another of Marvin’s associates, Casper (Stellan Skarsgard), who informs him Marvin has gone to Cambodia. Jimmy decides to follows him, arranging to meet up with Casper in Phnom Penh at a hotel called the Belleville. Most frequent travellers to Asia will have stayed in at least one place like the Belleville, a magnet for dead-beat expats, burn-outs and tourists on expired visas, who hang around the bar providing cryptic advice and Vietnam flashbacks to whoever will pay attention and buy them drinks.
Casper and Jimmy locate Marvin, living like a king in a rundown French colonial villa. He’s ploughed the proceeds from their insurance scam into a new project, a proposed casino complex which he and his local partner, a former high-ranking Cambodian military intelligence officer called Sideth, hope will turn Cambodia into the Acapulco of Asia.
Marvin offers Jimmy a slice of the action, then heads off down south to inspect his investment. In one of the film’s more surreal scenes, Marvin and his entourage stop for the night in one of those cavernous discotheques that are common in much of rural Asia. They do a little karaoke before all of Marvin’s off-siders are killed and he disappears.
Jimmy, meanwhile, has returned to his room at the Belleville to find a suitcase full of money and a note from Marvin telling him to get out of Cambodia and start a new life. He’s deliberating whether to take Marvin’s advice when he becomes involved with Sophie (Natasha McElhone), an archaeologist whom he meets at the Belleville.
Then a young Khmer boy walks into the Bellville carrying a box. Inside are a human foot, presumably Marvin’s, and a ransom demand for five million US dollars in exchange for Marvin's life.
The plot of City of Ghosts is strictly B-movie. That’s not necessarily a criticism in my book, but Dillon, who co-wrote and directed the film as well as starring in it, struggles to elicit anything more than a one-dimensional performance from virtually all his headline characters.
But these armchair criticisms aside, it was a pretty gutsy decision on Dillon’s part to make an entire movie in Cambodia. The country had a thriving film industry in the sixties and early seventies. This was completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in 1975 and has only started to recover in the last few years. Dillon would have had to bring in virtually all his equipment and most of his crew and start shooting from scratch.
More importantly despite its flaws, City of Ghosts has a strange authenticity and rawness that latches onto you and keeps your attention.
Many of the foreign supporting actors were recruited from amongst the ranks of Phnom Penh’s bizarre and eccentric local expatriate and backpacker communities. The parlous state of Cambodia’s film industry resulted in Dillon having to rely on local Khmers with little if any previous acting experience.
The soundtrack features songs from Cambodia’s incredibly vibrant sixties music scene. The camera work is fantastic. While the script may be clunky, there’s nothing remotely resembling a B-movie about how City of Ghosts looks, particularly the way it interweaves light and sound.
And as someone who has spent a lot of time in Cambodia, watching this film makes me feel like a time traveller, seeing locations that have either changed beyond recognition or no longer exist. I’ve tried to inject a similar quality of gritty authenticity in my book, Ghost Money.
How successful have I been? You’ll have to be the judge.