Book review: ‘Cambodia Noir’ by Nick Seeley

A hard-bitten photographer, once idealistic and feted for his work, Will Keller now finds himself adrift in Phnom Penh. Notionally working for a local newspaper, he stumbles from one grisly photographic assignment to the next in a numbing haze of sex, drugs and alcohol. His main interest, he explains, is taking photos of corpses; the dead pay better.

In the midst of another punishing bout of self-medication, he is approached by a Japanese American woman calling herself Kara. She wants to pay him to track down her missing sister, June. The latter had been working as a junior journalist at the same paper as Will and rented out his room while he was in Laos. He discovers her diaries, a tortured but vague account of her attempts to break free of her past. Preliminary investigations reveal little, but Will suspects her journalistic investigations into the region’s smuggling and drug trade may have got her in trouble with the wrong people.

Coincidentally or not, the unexpected assignment comes hot on the heels of an unprecedented incident where the police turn on the all-powerful army. A four-star general is shot in the raid and the police uncover a large stash of heroin. Soon after, Will’s friend Bunny, a well-connected political operative, is gunned down. Will’s life becomes a waking nightmare, visions of these deaths and haunting memories of the human carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan becoming indistinguishable from his hellish reality.

In classic noir style, the story which unfolds is not one of light and shade, but shadows within shadows. Another noir staple is the potentially redemptive nature of the mission, which soon leads Will back to the enigmatic Kara. He is a skilful liar, but Kara is better. It soon becomes clear there are very good reasons this femme fatale is employing the services of Will rather than reporting her sister’s disappearance to the authorities.

He may not have any experience as a PI, but he knows where the bodies are buried; which hotels facilitate drug and paedophile rings, who can get a lock picked, a body exhumed or tap into police intelligence to run a background check on someone.

Soon, he needs all these resources and a healthy dose of rat cunning just to stay afloat. The case sees him dig into a darkness even this seasoned war photographer couldn’t have imagined and the mystery of June’s disappearance comes to completely consume him. It leaves him a broken figure: “I am blank, a film cell” he reflects. “I am the thing that records”.

Will emerges as an inspired, gruffly compelling narrator, like some Raymond Chandler hero hopped up on dexies and complaining about backpackers. He has a nicely acrid wit and is prone to moments of bruised philosophy, musing at one point that Tom Waits could have been Cambodian as he has the exact right timbre of pain in his voice.

Keller inhabits a Cambodia that is less a developing tourist trap and more the last gas stop before hell; everyone here is on the run and discovering the hard way that all the drugs in the world can’t kill their demons. It’s a fever dream of a backdrop, and the closest comparison is probably Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent and divisive Only God Forgives. Its prevailing mood of narcotic paranoia may well prove similarly hard to shake.

The debut work of Nick Seeley, a journalist with experience in both the Middle East and South East Asia, Cambodia Noir draws loosely on some of the political manoeuvring in the titular country. What is foregrounded, however, is a feverishly drawn but convincingly harrowing netherworld of exiles, a city where “every backpacker and junkie and psycho on the planet comes to die”.

Sentences are blunt, truncated, with pronouns and adjectives shorn off until they are left as nasty and lean as a sawn off shotgun. It’s a style capable of both ugly propulsion and surprising lyricism. Some of the influences are familiar: Ellroy’s staccato rhythms and unrelenting cynicism, Hubert Selby Jr’s piercing blasts of lyrical anguish, but assembled in a way that feels both novel and queasily effective.

Not absolutely everything works: there are a couple of contrivances that detract from an otherwise sturdy narrative arc. Similarly, there is an occasional tendency to tonal inconsistency, with the normally indurate Will suddenly spitting action movie dialogue a la McBain. But these seem minor quibbles in the face of Seeley’s vision, a fresh, vicious thing bound to haunt your dreams.