Written by Nick Seeley — This year has seen the rise of some impressive new stars in crime fiction, authors whose novels are set in far-flung European locales, Scandinavian landscapes, and urban America. Perhaps none is more stellar than Nick Seeley whose debut novel, Cambodia Noir, is set in the sweltering mean streets of Phnom Penh.
Will Keller is a dissipated, street-smart, and very jaded news photographer based in the city. He is ever out to capture the next money shot, careening through the streets on a hired scooter, selling images of Cambodia’s misery for a newspaper.
Out of the blue, he is hired by a mysterious woman called Kara to track down her sister, June Saito, who also worked on the paper and mysteriously vanished. Keller remembers June, an idealistic neophyte intern who wrote increasingly in-depth articles. She may have gotten too close to the corruption rampant in the country, particularly Cambodia’s drug trade – a toxic, high-stakes cocktail of police, military, and opposing political parties, all manoeuvring for primacy. The new job offered by Kara comes at a time of growing unrest, and directly after Keller has survived an explosion. A tip-off had sent him to the scene of a drug bust involving a high-ranking general.
When another journalist is murdered in cold blood, Keller’s editor Gus wonders if his writers are getting too close to something hot. This both frightens and excites him. He supports Keller however he can and promises to look after Keller’s lover Channi, but otherwise stays out of it. Even when the investigation starts to point to journalists who may be caught up in the corruption.
Cambodia Noir oozes with atmosphere, a roiling mash-up of the gritty journalism like Michael Herr’s Dispatches and the psychological labyrinth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s the latter that seems to inspire the trajectory of its inward-turning, disassociative terror. Seeley’s compelling first-person narrative is classic noir, which world-weary Keller delivers in the deadpan tone of the pulps.
Keller needs cash and drugs to fuel his investigation, so he agrees to some well-paid side work involving blackmail. He is tasked with photographing the son of a high-ranking police officer in flagrante with a male lover. On this little jaunt someone tries to kill him with a machete, and he doesn’t know if it is a coincidence or if he’s been set-up. Now on the run, Keller doggedly yet carefully continues his quest to find June. Following the cryptic clues left in her increasingly hallucinatory diary, he begins to see things himself: the ghosts of murdered co-workers, friends and lovers begin to accompany him everywhere. As we learn, the dead person who haunts him most was his true love from the past.
As his mental state deteriorates, his appetite for drugs only increases. He binges on a steady diet of methamphetamine pills, marijuana and warm beer, and digs deeper and deeper into the very darkness that lured June herself. Using locational clues from her diary, and reaching near-insanity, he confronts the police, gangsters, and military – none of whom put any value on his life. With multiple factions leveraging to gain power, Keller may be a pawn, but he is a willing one. Hemmed in by enemies, and with the country on the brink of war, he marches forward like a damned soldier without a country.
Unable to trust anyone, Keller plummets headlong into the dark jungle in pursuit of June, unnerved by what he begins to suspect, but unable to resist the temptation. Keller’s investigation doesn’t end in the jungle but in a soul-shattering confrontation in the modern glitz of downtown Hong Kong. Keller asked for it, so he gets his answers amid a violent hail of bullets and glass. The final, gut-wrenching exchange will fill you with a sense of admiration and despair.
Seeley, who worked as a reporter in Cambodia, creates a riveting rollercoaster ride that is equal parts blood-beating thriller, psychological tour de force and commentary on journalism and cultural appropriation. The writer’s engaging style of authenticity combined with his gritty sensibility marks him as an author to watch.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 5 Stars