Drifters, Conspirators, and Noir in Cambodia’s Capital City
By Paul French for Crime Reads, originally published October 2018
This installment of “Crime and the City” is about Phnom Penh and given Cambodia’s tragic modern history perhaps we should not be surprised that dark noir predominates. There is history in every crack in the pavement of Phnom Penh… and it is very recent history too. Phnom Penh was a city once dubbed the Pearl of Asia though, due to poverty, the collapse of the French Empire in Indochina, and an influx of refugees from the neighboring Vietnam War, it became a city of slums that were home to three million poor. The terror of the Khmer Rouge years left a deep mark on the society. Since 1985 the country has been run by Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was recently re-elected unopposed to a sixth term. Hun Sen rules with an iron hand and while many Cambodians still fear a return of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen can position himself as one of Asia’s strongmen. To fall foul of him is to be in a great deal of trouble. Last summer the Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was convicted of spying in a Phnom Penh court and sentenced to six years in prison. It has never been stated who exactly Hun Sen believes him to have been spying for; only that he flew a camera drone over an opposition rally to highlight that there are alternatives to Hun Sen. Under pressure internationally Hun Sen pardoned Rickelton. His opponents say he only did this so as to appease the United Nations who were considering punitive action against Cambodia.
Phnom Penh has begun to crop up increasingly in crime novels of late. As a little sister to its South East Asian neighbor Thailand and the Bangkok writing scene (see Crime and the City Bangkok), Phnom Penh’s representation in crime novels is most often offered up by expat foreign writers in the city or those passing through. It has to be said that there is little to nothing of a local crime writing scene. And, it seems just lately, that Cambodian-set noirs are like buses—you wait around for ages and then several come at once.
In one twelve month period we got Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark(2015) and Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir. Both books (like many others in this Crime and the City) owe a partial debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness(1899), by way of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), where Colonel Kurtz is of course holed up in neutral Cambodia. Both Osborne and Seeley’s Cambodias are pretty lawless, trippy and drug-soaked. Both books are rather like extended bad trips layered on top of brutal hangovers that make everything weird and nightmarish rather vague and numbing. Both authors have spent time in the region —Osborne lived in Bangkok for many years; Seeley in Phnom Penh. Osborne is currently the leading author in the perennial ‘foreigners adrift in different cultures’ genre and he’s showed that consistently with The Forgiven(Morocco), The Ballad of a Small Player (Macao) and Beautiful Animals (the Greek island of Hydra).
However, Osborne doesn’t just sink into a comfortable bed of orientalism and exotica but rather dives deep into the conflicts between old and new societies, rising nations versus seemingly decaying ones, and what Europeans and Americans now looking for new places to escape their home countries are actually seeking when they travel to Asia. For Osborne in Hunters in the Dark it’s Robert, a bored English schoolteacher who, seeking new scenery ends up passport- and cash-less in Phnom Penh. He opts to start over—new identity, new life, no baggage from England —but finds he cannot remake himself sufficiently to comprehend the culture he has fallen into. The drifters of contemporary Europe and America can, it appears, come a serious cropper in twenty-first century Phnom Penh.
Seeley’s main protagonist, Will Keller, is a perhaps more recognizable character in the setting of South East Asia (thanks perhaps to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American): a once rather famous war photographer now stranded in Phnom Penh and sinking into a life of booze, drugs and one-night stands. Seeley’s Phnom Penh is one of back street bars and seedy pay-by-the-night hotels; a city where the jungle runs right up to the urban core of the city. There’s a Chandler-esque plot slightly reminiscent of The Big Sleep, but the strongest element of Seeley’s noir is the Phnom Penh underworld atmosphere—smoky, beer stained, “cocaine at night; yaba before dawn” and then the blinding sunlight that penetrates the flimsy curtains of your flea bag hostel and shoots pain right behind your eyes.
Hard-boiled and noir is pretty much the only option on the menu when it comes to Phnom Penh crime writing. Tom Vater, a Bangkok-based writer and publisher, wrote The Cambodian Book of the Dead (2013) which sees German Detective Maier travels to Phnom Penh to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire. It’s 2001 and Cambodia is only just emerging from Pol Pot, starvation, civil war and political infighting. Maier is plunged back into Cambodia’s dark history, which collides with his own when it transpires that a Nazi war criminal has remained hidden among the chaos of the Khmer Rouge.
Some other Phnom Penh noirs for your consideration:
- Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money (2013) features Vietnamese-Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan. He’s in Cambodia in 1996 as the various Khmer Rouge groupuscules are splintering and realigning. Phnom Penh is the epicenter of political faction fighting, deal making, attempts to form workable governments, paranoid fears of Vietnamese, Chinese, American interference in Cambodia’s internecine affairs. There’s no way for Quinlan to sort out a problem of the present without going back into the murkiness of Cambodia’s recent past.
- Christopher G. Moore is another writer more traditionally associated with Thailand than Cambodia thanks to his popular Vincent Calvino Bangkok PI series. In Zero Hour in Phnom Penh (2010) Calvino does visit the city, in the early 1990s, looking for a suspect among the international peacekeepers of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
- Steven W. Palmer is a Scotsman living in Cambodia. His 2015 novel Angkor Away dealt with a London DJ and occasional drug dealer moving to Thailand where he sets up an LSD lab before having to swiftly exit the country one step ahead of some local crime bosses. Phnom Penh seems like a good place to disappear for a while. But the drug world isn’t far away and he finds himself once more pursued by Cambodia’s drug cartels. Angkor Tears (2016) finds a serial killer terrorizing Phnom Penh and killing children. Journalist Dave Bell comes back to Cambodia after a plea from an old friend to report the killings that seem to point, as so often in so much Cambodian-set noir, back to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.
Much of the crime writing featuring Phnom Penh is reminiscent of that from its close neighbour Bangkok in that it is mostly, if not entirely, written by ex-pats living in the country. The local crime-writing scene is miniscule and, even if it can be found, rarely if ever translated. There are several good anthologies of crime writing set in Cambodia. Mekong Shadows: Tales from Cambodia (2017), edited by Iain Donnelly, features writers including Steven W. Palmer, Tom Vater and another well known Bangkok based writer John Burdett. It does features a story by Cambodian writer Kosal Khiev. Khiev is a poet who began writing verse while in solitary confinement in a US prison, serving a sentence for attempted murder. Khiev’s parents fled the Khmer Rouge to America where he became active in various street gangs. He was deported to Cambodia, a country he had never visited, having been born in a refugee camp. Khiev remains primarily a poet.
Lastly, the ever reliable Akashic Noir series includes Cambodia. Phnom Penh Noir (2012) is edited by Christopher G. Moore and, while it includes many familiar names such as John Burdett, Christopher West (see Crime and the City Hong Kong and Beijing) and Andrew Nette, it also includes some local authors including Cambodian journalist Bopha Phorn, young writer Suong Mak and the Thai writer Prabda Yoon.
It is perhaps not surprising that a country so convulsed by fratricide, bloodlust and chaos in recent decades should not immediately embrace writing crime fiction. As we find so often in this column the desire to write, and read, crime fiction is strongest in some of the safest and most stable parts of the world. Cambodia has not yet fully established democracy, rule of law and trusted authorities. Crime “stories” can seem frivolous and pointless in such an environment. Still, we know that crime writing can also be part of society’s discussion of the darker sides of our countries and cultures; a working through of current issues. Perhaps, in the future, crime writing will also have a positive role to play in Cambodia.
This article was republished with the kind permission of crimereads.com
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* Paul French is a British author of books about modern Chinese history and contemporary Chinese society including Midnight in Peking and the 2018 release City of Devils.