Phnom Penh Express by Johan Smits now at Kinokuniya Books

First published in Cambodia, Johan Smits’ romantic thriller is now available in Bangkok. AsiaLIFE’s Mark Bibby Jackson reviews Phnom Penh Express.  

Like John Burdett’s Bangkok series of novels, the star of Johan Smits’ debut novel, Phnom Penh Express, is the city in which it is set. Through Smits’ eyes, the reader is shown Phnom Penh warts and all. From the all-pervading smell of fermented fish prahok to the deathly noise of karaoke songs, we see, hear and smell the city.

What Smits offers is not so much an insider’s view of the Cambodian capital as an outsider’s view. By choosing to make his protagonist (Phirum) half-Belgian and half-Cambodian, he has created a central character who feels the full force of alienation within the country to which he has chosen to return. It is an interesting study of people who reside in the cracks between nationalities.

However, unlike Camus’ Outsider, Phnom Penh Express is no sociological study of the outsider within. Instead like Burdett, Smits has chosen to place his novel in a genre that is familiar to most readers, the thriller.

Smits demonstrates the ability to tell a story, a quality which many first-time novelists lack. The plot is straightforward enough, but told well and at pace.

A shipment of chocolates is mistakenly sent to a Chocolate Shop on Phnom Penh’s Street 240, and contained within are diamonds. The unwitting Phirum is drawn into a web of murder and deception involving diamond smugglers, arms traders and hired assassins. Along the way he finds love.

Diamonds, chocolates and sinister men with moustaches, Smits captures the flavour of life in Phnom Penh, but gives it a distinctly Belgian twist. In choosing to do so, he has wisely chosen to write about that which he knows best, having grown up in Antwerp and lived for many years in Cambodia. He also admits that it allows him to “poke fun” at where he comes from.

It is this sardonic sense of humour that lifts Phnom Penh Express above the mundane. Not since the days of Tintin has a Belgian novelist captured the essence of expat life in the Far East.

A thoroughly good read, especially on the beaches of Koh Samet during the rainy season, it might also make a good present for friends back home to explain what living in Phnom Penh is really like, apart from the moustaches that is, of course.

Phnom Penh Express is available from Kinokuniya Books for B424.