Canbodia Noir
A novel by Nick Seeley
Book review by Jules Brenner
Scribner, released 3/15/16, 352 pp., $26.00
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Your typical noir thriller would have a relentless detective plodding dark, dangerous streets, questioning a shadowy cast of characters, some evil, some not, for the clues that move the tale toward a perilous climax. For writer Nick Seeley's first novel, his setting of post Khmer Cambodia (circa 2003) adds a choking dimension of alien mystery to an American expat war photographer's dissolution and a try at resurrecting a life heading downward.

This is Will Keller, still tough and talented, whose drug and alcohol consumption supports many a Cambodian bar -- but doesn't slow his defensive speed and combat skills when confronted by an oversized attacker. He works freelance for any publication to which he can sell his work, but primarily for the Cambodia Daily which isn't above publishing salacious dirt along with reportage of a sensational drug bust in Phnom Penh, a political murder, and the general violence and corruption in this hotbed of human trafficking.

That's when Kara Saito shows up, offering to pay Keller handsomely to use his investigative skills to find her missing sister June who has disappeard. Will cares. June had worked as an intern on the Daily and he had put her up in his flat as a gesture of kindness. But, now the intern's gone somewhere and lost contact. Or, worse.

To help Will, Kara leaves June's diary with Will, hoping he can find a clue in it as to her whereabouts.

Seeley alternates Will's plodding progress through the country's underworld with pages from the diary, which reveals a woman's odd journey of development through the raw atmosphere of a deteriorating society. Meanwhile, Will gathers what he can from an assortment of friends and enemies and a culture in which the value of life comes down to money and power.

It's actually a laborious read about an addict who's days end with a very long night life of consumption and dissipation . The progress of the investigation is slowed by Seeley's elongated rendering of his hero's debauchery and self-hatred in an atmosphere of sin and corruption.

But the addict remains appealing and sympathetic in his devotion to saving a life at great personal risk. Will's ability to handle himself in a fight even when in a haze of drugs and alcohol gave me pause, though I accepted it as the author ignoring the logic and saving his worthy hero.

On the plus side, the sense of originality and accuracy in the setting is convincing and makes the story worth the trek for those mystery fans who lean toward complexity and descriptive power. What kept me in it was the protagonis's appeal and the promise of a resolution, if not a redemption.

If you don't yet own Canbodia Noir and would like to purchase it (usually at a sizable discount), click here.