A drug-, booze-, life-, and love-addled freelance photographer pursues a missing woman through a phantasmic Cambodia in this debut thriller.
If ever a case was made for place as character in a novel, Seeley makes it here with scene after nightmarish scene set in Phnom Penh’s dive bars, seedy hotels, and teeming, treacherous streets and, as well, in the surrounding dark jungles. A journalist whose work in Southeast Asia included a stint in Phnom Penh in 2003, Seeley bases his plot, which he describes as a “fantastical backstory,” on actual events involving drug busts and police and political corruption. His narrator and protagonist, haunted journalist Will Keller, numbs emotional wounds in Cambodia’s “educational system”: “cocaine at night; yaba before dawn, sucked down in acrid curls of smoke; beer and blinding sunrise.” That Keller survives his nonstop drugging and boozing and remains powerfully fit, ready to thwart gun- and knife-point attacks, strains credulity, but Seeley’s labyrinthine puzzle keeps the reader following along. The setup is pure Chandler: a Japanese woman—“black hair,” “antique ivory” skin—appears “like Venus out of the sea.” The woman begs Keller to find her sister June, a journalist, who has disappeared. For reasons later made clear—in one of the plot’s big and harrowing reveals—Keller feels compelled to take the case. From a photo of June the sister shows him, the journalist realizes June was an intern at the paper where he works. She also sublet his flat, leaving behind a diary, which Keller mines for clues to her whereabouts. Keller’s search turns to a roster of treacherous and violent characters—his co-workers at the paper, the police, and drug lords—whom he follows in tense, violent, and suspenseful scenes. It’s amazing that from this dark hell, Seeley pulls off a resolution that’s plausibly warm and optimistic.
Generic title aside, this is distinctive work. The plotting is wily and entertaining, the take on Cambodia, trenchant and disturbing.