Private eye and former war reporter, Maier is sent to Cambodia to track down the missing heir to a Hamburg coffee empire.
His search leads him into the darkest corners of the country’s history, through the Killing Fields of the communist revolution, to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungle.
But the terrifying tale of mass murder that Maier uncovers is far from over. And soon Maier realises that, if he is to prevent more innocent lives from being destroyed, he will have to write the last horrific chapter himself.
The Cambodian Book of the Dead – it’s where Apocalypse Now meets The Beach…
As a non-native speaker myself, I find authors that write in English when this is not their mother tongue fascinating. I’d like to think I’m pretty fluent in English, but I still find myself stumbling for words sometimes, especially when writing because metaphors and sayings are often hard to translate; you have to know the equivalent in English, which might not even resemble the saying in Dutch. So to think of not only writing a book, but writing it in your second language, is something that floors me. Yet that is exactly what Tom Vater has done. And to great effect too, because The Cambodian Book of the Dead is an engrossing read.
The setting for the book is original. I’ve never read anything set in Cambodia before and beyond the fact that it has been war-torn for decades due to the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the Killing Fields, and the fact that is it home to the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat, I’m quite unfamiliar with its history and culture. Its protagonist is quite original too; Maier is a war reporter turned private detective, something you don’t usually run across. And these two are combined into a story that is both riveting and chilling.
Maier is interesting and sympathetic, even if he is something of a loner and not always the most likeable person. I found his background quite interesting; an Eastern German by birth, who after re-unification found opportunity beckoned and lived a life he could only have dreamed of before the Wall came down and who got out of it after experiencing one too many traumas. This has to be a bubbling pot of stories waiting to be written as where has he been beyond Cambodia? There was one big nitpick I have with his character in retrospect though; I have a hard time reconciling the damage he takes – blows to the head, drugging, torture – with how capable he remained. Apart from when it’s convenient for the plot for the drugs to incapacitate him, we never hear about his injuries again. Which, unless he is Superman, isn’t very credible. I found this jarring, because the story is entirely plausible, especially since it is set almost a dozen years ago and this disregard for Maier’s injuries detracted from that.
Maier is surrounded by some colourful characters, some of whom are more memorable than others. I loved the old US war vet Les, who runs the bar in Kep, where most of the story takes place. He is almost a caricature, but he felt genuine. Maier’s old flame Carissa is fun, though it’s unfortunate that in the end she’s nothing but a way to get Maier to cooperate with the bad guys. The other main female characters were far more interesting. Kaley, who seems to be the linchpin of the book, is fascinating. She is a true victim of war. Forced to acts that are beyond the pale by her captors, her mind seems to have been somewhat broken and she wavers between awareness and docilely following orders. Raksmei, on the other hand, is fully aware and I found her actions quite interesting, though there are unanswered questions regarding her, such as was she aware of her parentage, that remain unanswered.
There are supernatural overtones to the story that were fascinating and fantastic red herrings at the same time. The uncertainty whether there really was something supernatural going on or that events were just explained away as such due to the local population’s very superstitious nature, added another layer of mystery to unravel to the narrative. There was one final reveal in the book that I just hadn’t seen coming and that was the identity of the assassin Dani hired. Vater seeded the narrative with a lot of clues but only after he’d revealed the assassin’s identity did I put it all together. Though having your ultimate bad guy be a Nazi might be somewhat of a cliché, I appreciated the way Vater used it in this story. We’re used to finding Nazi’s hiding out in South America and still being up to no good decades after WWII, so finding one in South East Asia was unexpected. And it was interesting to see the perspective from a German viewpoint, especially one raised in communist East Germany.
I had a bit of trouble getting into The Cambodian Book of the Dead at first, but it became a total page turner once everything gets going and I had trouble putting the damn thing down at night. I blame Vater for the bags currently under my eyes! If you’re looking for something a bit different in the crime department, something set off the beaten path of US, UK and Scandinavian crime, then Tom Vater’s The Cambodian Book of the Dead will fit that bill perfectly. I hugely enjoyed Vater’s first outing with Detective Maier and I hope there’ll a lot more mysteries to unravel with the good detective in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.