Writing noir fiction in Asia

Late last week in Phnom Penh a book was launched that I’m very proud to have a story in.

It’s called Phnom Penh Noir, an anthology of 14 noir stories set in Cambodia. Amongst the authors are Roland Joffe, the director whose credits include the 1984 film The Killing Fields, John Burdett, author of the Sonchai Jitpleecheep series and Christopher G Moore, who also edited the book. Interestingly, there’s also stories by Khmer and Thai authors.

If you’re looking for an interesting take on noir fiction, I’d urge you to check this book out.

I’ve noticed a bit of interest lately around the idea of setting noir crime fiction in Asia.

My debut novel Ghost Money is set in Cambodia the mid-nineties, the point at which the long-running Khmer Rouge insurgency started to fragment and the country was torn by political instability. It’s been out for several months now and nearly everyone who has reviewed it has labelled it noir fiction. Which is very fine with me.  As I noted in my last post, some have even dubbed it Asian noir, which sounds even cooler. 

Ghost Money is the story of a disillusioned Vietnamese Australian ex-cop called Max Quinlan, who is hired to find an Australian businessman, Charles Avery, missing in the chaos. It soon becomes clear Avery has made dangerous enemies and Quinlan is not the only one looking.

To my knowledge, it is also one of a relatively small number of hardboiled crime fiction books written set in Asia.

And if that surprises you, let me assure you I share the sentiment.

I’ve sat patiently through the hype about Scandinavian crime fiction, which shows no sign of abating, thinking people will discover Asia as a fascinating place to set noir and hardboiled crime novels, but there’s hardly been a stampede of interest.

There are exceptions. Moore has been writing books featuring his Bangkok-based American PI, Vincent Calvino since the early nineties. Low profile author Martin Limon has written seven books featuring Sueno and Bacom, officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the US military based in South Korea.

You could probably add a few more to the list and, slowly, more books, like the Phnom Penh Noir anthology are coming out.

But, like I say, hardly a stampede.

The situation is even more acute when once thinks of hardboiled crime fiction, indeed, any kind of crime fiction written by Asians themselves. With the exception of material coming out of Japan, maybe Singapore and India, there’s not a lot out there.

I don’t have any definitive answers why this is the case, but I have a few ideas.

In countries like China, it’s a case of crime fiction and authoritarian governments not mixing. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction because it is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.

A Chinese author once told me foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular, because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China. The best known of these is Qui Xiaolong, whose character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

Another reason for the lack of locally produced crime fiction is life is already pretty hardboiled or noir, for want of better ways of putting it, for a lot of people in the region.

When I first travelled to Cambodia in 1992, it was a poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.

Phnom Penh was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists. The streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms, victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge caste a shadow over everything.

It remained that way for much of the nineties, while I was working on and off as a journalist.

A lot had changed when I returned for the year in 2008. The Khmer Rouge insurgency was over, its main leaders on trial for war crimes. The streets of Phnom Penh were full of luxury cars. Tourists could get a shiatsu massage in their ozone neutral hotel, then head out for tapas and cocktails.

On another level, a lot hadn’t. The same people still ran things and the methods they used hadn’t altered. Corruption, land grabbing and even murder are all carried out with shocking impunity by local elites.

Understandably, there’s not a lot of interest on the part of the locals in reading crime fiction. They can just pick up a newspaper and read about it.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this situation profoundly influenced how I researched and wrote my book, Ghost Money.

What does it mean for the story and characters when your crime fiction is set in a country where corruption and extreme violence are regular features of everyday life and the term ‘criminal’ is often simply a label applied by the local elite to anyone who tries to assert their rights? For that matter, what does it mean when elements of the state itself that is the major criminal actor?

These are some of the issues I’ve tried to deal with in Ghost Money. The book is a crime story, but it’s also about the broken country Cambodia was in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choice they make, what they have to do to survive.

And they’re themes I’m keen to explore in more depth in future work.

Phnom Penh Noir is available in hard copy and digital format here.


5 Responses

  1. Andrew, love your site. I came to it via your interviews with Iain McIntyre. I’ve already ordered a copy of Phnom Phen Noir – having been to cambodia once and vietnam 3 times, I’ve got the SE Asia bug myself. is there a physical edition of Ghost Money planned? I just can’t come at the digital book thing yet…

  2. Dave,
    Thanks for stopping by. There is only a digital copy of Ghost Money available at the moment. Hard copy may come out, but unsure. Why don’t you make Ghost Money your first digital book? I think you’ll find the read experience is not really any different to print. After much resistance that was certainly my experience.

  3. Pingback: “Writing Noir Fiction in Asia : The Cultural Gutter

  4. Interesting topic Andrew…some of your thoughts are eerily similar to things I’ve read about the relative lack of crime fiction set in Africa – esp South Africa – until recently. Deon Meyer spoke on the topic at some festival or other that I saw online and said much the same – that people were so used to real world crime and corruption that fiction about it was just not a saleable commodity. As someone who tries to read crime fiction from all over the place I have certainly noticed that Asia is under represented – not just noir but all kinds of crime fiction. Japan is about the only country consistently producing stuff that gets translated anyway (I do often wonder if there is lots more going on but it’s just not available to mono linguists like myself).

  5. There is a bit around that is set in Singapore, some I have seen from India, and of course heaps of foreigners writing crime fiction set in Thailand. But aside from that there’s not much I am aware of. It would, indeed, be interesting to know what is out there in other languages. I am not sure whether you’re familiar with an outfit called Crime Wave Press, recently established in Hong Kong, only do crime fiction set in Asia http://www.crimewavepress.com/ I have one of their books set in the Philippines which looks interesting.

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