Thursday, October 18, 2018


PHNOM PENH EXPRESS by Johan Smits (Mekong Media, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A young Cambodian returns home. 
A diamond shipment goes missing.
A foreign assassin arrives in Phnom Penh.

And then there's the chocolate - lots of it. 

Phirun is determined to make it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But things don't go quite as plannned when he gets unwittingly caught up in a deadly turf war between rivalling diamond mafia and those who are after him. Falling in love with a mysterious Khmer-Australian doesn't help him. 

Throw in an overzealous post-9/11 American intelligence officer and a corrupt Belgian ex-Colonel, from Tel Aviv through Belgium and Bangkok right up to Phnom Penh - in this fast read of crime and intrigue, chocolates have never tasted so good!

I love travelling, and I love mystery writing, so whenever I'm abroad I like to dip into the local genre where I can, even collecting books from the places I've travelled. Ahead of three weeks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago I'd looked up some possibilities ahead of time, so I knew what to look for in the bookshops. Landing in Bangkok, I grabbed some John Burdett thrillers (his Sonchai Jitpleecheep series is excellent) and this then-new Cambodian-set crime novel. 

Written by a Belgian expat who'd spent years in Cambodia, PHNOM PENH EXPRESS is not your typical southeast Asian crime novel (not that they're all homogenous of course - far from it - but this one has some particularly unique flourishes). An international thriller with a chocolatier at its heart. 

Phirun has a dream. Half Cambodian and half Belgian, he wants to combine his heritages by making it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But his plans go awry when a shipment of chocolates containing diamonds is mistakenly delivered to his chocolate shop in Phnom Penh. That's just the first misstep in what becomes a dangerous and slightly madcap dive into the world of international diamond smuggling. Rival 'diamond mafia' in the middle of a turf war zero in. Rather than dealing with customers who he makes happy with his chocolate creations, Phirun is faced with a far nastier and less forgiving world full of diamond smugglers, arms traders, and professional assassins. 

As the same time, he gets romantically entangled with an intriguing Khmer-Australian. 

Danger and humor mix throughout PHNOM PENH EXPRESS. Smits, a Belgian who has spent years in Cambodia, gives his hero that same ‘insider-outsider’ perspective and takes readers on a journey through modern Phnom Penh in all its fragrant glory and grime. 

This is a solid read; a rather straightforward story and writing style that’s boosted by the vivid setting, unusual characters and events, and a vein of sardonic humour. When I read the book it suffered a little from comparison with Burdett's Bangkok thrillers (which provide a similarly vivid insight into a southeast Asian city while having stronger characters, deeper issues, and crackling prose), but PHNOM PENH EXPRESS still has something to offer too and is worth a look. 

Smits gives readers a sensory experience of Phnom Penh, from the pervasive aroma of fermented fish to the karaoke soundtrack beloved by citizens. The situation is a little surreal, and there's some lovely wry humour in what can at times seem a bit of a madcap story, careening around the globe. All centred on a local guy who just wants to make chocolates. A good beach read. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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