Black and ominous, it slid into my hand just so. It felt familiar, it felt balanced, and it felt dangerous. "See what you make of that," says the boss.
Phnom Penh Noir Roland Joffe, James Grady, John Burdett, Christopher G. Moore, Prabda Yoon et al. Edited by Christopher G. Moore 385pp, 595 baht at Asia Books
I wanted a book, and for my sins they gave me one.
Scruffy and unshaven on a Monday morning, the shame of the weekend's excessive drinking and introducing friends to Soi Nana was fading to memory. But just when I thought I was out they pull me back in to a world of murder, prostitution, betrayal, alcohol, rogue generals and thieving humanitarians, a world where you imagine half the characters narrating as Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now and the other half as Clive Owen in Sin City. This is Phnom Penh Noir, a wretched hive of scum and villainy where beer and women are cheap and life is worthless.
A sequel of sorts to 2011's Bangkok Noir, Christopher G. Moore has gathered 15 pieces from Cambodian and international writers. Among them are novelists, journalists, a poet, a songwriter and film director Roland Joffe. There are 13 short fiction stories, one personal story, and lyrics from Cambodian band Krom, all delving into the dark side of life in a country bearing the scars of a violent and tumultuous history, often with the ghosts or remnants of the Khmer Rouge lurking.
There are certain expectations of noir: violent crime, seduction, corrupt officials and plenty of drugs and alcohol. There are certain expectations of fiction about Phnom Penh: see above. This collection has these ingredients in abundance, almost all of them included in Joffe's hit-and-miss opener about a heartbroken NGO worker seduced into artefact trafficking and tangled in office politics. Parts are entertaining, but parts are written with all the intrigue paperwork usually entails.
After reading the Oscar-nominated director's "Hearts And Minds" I kept a checklist of tropes. By my count death, usually by gunshot, feature in all but two of the fiction pieces, alcohol and/or drugs in eight, beautiful women seducing gullible men in six, while sex tourism, Buddhism, NGOs and corruption are employed repeatedly. Some of these blur and overlap. Cults demanding human sacrifice or witchcraft involving preserved foetuses abound, and even though Angkor Wat is more than 300km from Phnom Penh it is treated almost as an outer suburb _ two of the stories are set there and barely mention the capital.
If you're looking for short, sharp tales of booze-blinded Western men falling prey to deadly, conniving, beautiful Eastern women of pliable morality, and Cambodian men are brutes, you've come to the right place.
The best of that sort in Phnom Penh Noir is James Grady's first-person shooter "Fires Of Forever". Grady, probably best known for Six Days Of The Condor, delivers a taught and engaging account of a man hoping to use his role in the theft of computer coding to escape the city with his girl on his arm, only for things to go horribly wrong.
The D.H. Lawrence quoting John Burdett's "Love And Death At Angkor" has a deft touch of humour and a whimsically sexy quality that sets it apart. Moore's "Reunion" is a reflection on the days of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields and the war crimes tribunal, making it timely.
Noir should be grim, and its cynical, jaundiced humour can help relieve the darkness. In this book even characters who travel to Cambodia with the best of intentions find themselves bar hoping, watching degrading matinee sex shows and visiting brothels populated by children who should be in primary school.
It's pretty horrifying at times, but that is not a bad thing. We shouldn't become immune to depictions of Khmer Rouge-style torture, suggestions of cannibalism or allusions to child rape. These things should be shocking.
The most compelling story is Prabda Yoon's mesmerising six and a bit pages called "Darkness Is Faster Than The Speed Of Light". The story follows a young Thai woman named Wipa as she takes a nightmarish tuk-tuk ride from her hotel to the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium. In little more than a scene Prabda takes us close to Cambodia's heart of darkness, images of bloodstains and storms swirl around something more ghastly.
Intriguing in a different way is "Dark Truths" from Bopha Phorn, the first published piece of short fiction from the Cambodian investigative journalist. Avoiding death and bullets, the only woman writer in the collection instead takes us into the mind of an English journalist (with a past, as all good noir characters do) as he works on a series of articles about child sex offences.
Also promising is Suong Mak's English-language debut "Hell In The City". The 26-year-old Cambodian's exploration of the aftermath of a rape is understated, affecting, and layered with social commentary. His novel Boyfriend, one of four books Suong Mak has had published and the first contemporary Khmer novel about a gay couple, is being translated into English, so we should hear more from him in the years to come.
The stories end, as you would hope, with a bang. Neil Wilford's punchy tale of a loser named Scott and a pregnant bar girl named Chanta who are chased by a ruthless general. You can almost guess the rest of that entertaining, bloody romp. Almost.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles