A Belgian-educated Khmer, a female Hezbollah-financing Israeli crime boss, a sexy Cambodian-born Mossad agent, a gung-ho US embassy worker and a Belgian ex-military diamond lord. In Phnom Penh Express, a first novel by Thailand-based Johan Smits, this quintet of self-serving characters cast their nets and drag each other ever closer in an implausible but highly readable thriller as tension mounts. Set in a Phnom Penh riddled with corruption and mismanagement, an imbroglio of misplaced packages and mistaken identity unfolds, as assassinations go awry amid an international turf battle.
Large doses of humour complete the mix, such as when protagonist Phirun, a foreign-educated and somewhat dim-witted chocolate chef, writes an agonisingly bad love poem and becomes engorged by his own literary talents. There are hints of caricature as well in the gangsters, do-gooders and politicians, but that's par for the course in a crime novel. No one is all that sympathetically portrayed or particularly likeable; where humour subsides a detached matter-of-factness reigns. Despite some mismatches of UK and US styles and spellings, it is a quick and clever read until the explosive, if somewhat unsatisfying, finale.
The title is curious _ there is no train in the narrative, no high-speed car chase. It might refer to the express diamond delivery that goes awry, or the pace of the narrative. The book could be subtitled "guns, diamonds and chocolate" _ as this triumvirate of elements at times are more lovingly rendered than the characters themselves _ but that doesn't take anything away from Phnom Penh Express. The main player in any case is the web of deceit that forms the bulk of an engaging and eminently readable tale.
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