The great Otto Penzler – distinguished editor of mystery fiction in the United States, and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City – once said of noir: “[It] is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with.” For the characters who populate these tales, there is no happy ending. These people spend their lives stitching themselves up inside their own body bag. Their demise is entirely their own doing; they are trapped in a fate of their own construction, a prisoner of inevitability.
The spiral of once-great war photographer Will Keller, the protagonist in Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, began years ago. An inauspicious photograph taken in Kabul inspired his relocation to lawless, drug-soaked Cambodia, where he spends his days floating from one score to the next, taking any job that pays, while he fills his nights with sex, drugs, booze, and brawling. Keller’s terminal, and he knows it; he just doesn’t care, pushed far beyond the point of no return. But his spiral toward oblivion is interrupted by Kara Saito, a beautiful young woman who begs Will to help find her sister, who disappeared during a stint as an intern at the local paper. Unfortunately for Keller, there’s a world of bad things June could gave gotten mixed up in. The Phnom Penh underworld is in uproar after a huge drug bust; a local reporter has been murdered in a political hit; and the government and opposition are locked in a standoff that could throw the country into chaos at any moment. Keller’s best clue is June’s diary: a disturbing collection of experiences, memories, and dreams, reflecting a young woman at once repelled and fascinated by the chaos of Cambodia. But is there any truth to the young woman’s words?
Cambodia Noir is propulsive and electric. It’s classic noir revitalized in a setting rarely explored in the genre. Nick Seeley uses the skills honed as a reporter, and submerges the reader in the sights and smells of Phnom Penh, celebrating Cambodia’s culture and its idiosyncrasies even as he shines the spotlight on its dark underbelly. It’s a novel that is thematically weighted, with an ending that begs for discussion. You won’t read a finer contemporary noir novel than this.