The Cambodian Book of the Dead by Tom Vater

  The Cambodian Book of the Dead: A Detective Maier Mystery (The Detective Maier Mystery Series 1)  by Tom Vater

TCBOD by Tom Vater is the first Detective Maier thriller in this series.  I requested and received a digital copy compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

Mr. Vater imagines a complex protagonist in Maier, just Maier, I never did catch his first name.  An East German man who moved West after the fall of the Berlin Wall and worked the world over as a war correspondent for close to 10 years.

While reporting from Cambodia in the late nineties, the horror that was the Pol Pot regime cut way too close to the bone, so Maier left the business and returned home to Germany. Burnt out and scarred by this time spent reporting on various front lines,  Maier reinvented himself as a private detective and began working for a premiere Hamburg agency.  While he makes his living specializing in Southeast Asian cases he has yet to return to Cambodia, but now that is all about to change.

A wealthy client,  the mother of the heir to a German coffee empire is seeking to extract her rebellious son from Cambodia and bring him back to run the family business. Maier’s boss taps him for the job.

So Maier travels from Hamburg to Phnom Penh to find and bring back Rolf, easy enough job he thinks, it has been four years, perhaps enough time has passed to heal old wounds, perhaps it will be all okay, just a quick extraction—in and out swiftly. It only takes one night back in Cambodia to quickly put paid to that plan.

The story is set in 2001, just as Cambodia is re-emerging from over 50 years of war, genocide, famine, and cultural collapse. Mr. Vater, an excellent wordsmith, takes his time setting the scene through carefully executed rounds of history, fully imagined characters, and his construction results in a rich world full of mystery, mysticism, ghosts, Eastern philosophy, jungles, sweat, mosquitos, drugs, sex, and violence.

Personally,  I love a book that combines good story telling with history, and the writers who take the time to develop a richly nuanced world, often by weaving truth throughout  their fiction. I am never a happier reader than when I am learning something new.

The horrible truth behind this work of fiction is that the inhumanity of Cambodia’s past is far worse than any of the cruelties, tortures and violence that Mr. Vater creates for this tale.

The case isn’t so much about finding the errant heir, especially as Rolf isn’t hiding. Rolf and a business partner are running a small dive shop on the beach in Kep. Maier executed this task his first night back in Phnom Penh while hooking up for drinks with fellow journalist and some time bed partner Carissa, a woman who still has her finger on the pulse of all the major Cambodian players.

The once thriving beachside resort of Kep fell into total disrepair during the war but now it is ripe for re-development.  Maier slips under cover as a potential investor to suss out more information about Rolf’s shifty business partner, as well as the former Khmer Rouge General Tep, who is spearheading a major real estate scheme surrounding an old abandoned casino complex.

Once he spends some time in Kep, Maier realizes that not only is Rolf mixed up in some shady business dealings, that he won’t leave without his Cambodian girlfriend, and that extracting her is going to be anything but easy.

A lot of behind the scenes evil is afoot as Maier sniffs out more mayhem in the form of a Nazi war criminal, a Viet Nam vet, a gay Russian gun-for-hire, girl assassins in black pajamas, orphanage managers, pedophiles, murder, more murder, drugs, torture and violence.

But this is also the story of two young girls, sisters who were separated by the cruelties of Pol Pot’s war.

Dani managed to escape Cambodia with the help of a German man who became her husband. Scarred yes, but she spent all of her adulthood living a safe sheltered life in West Germany. When Dani’s husband passes she hires a man to find the sister she abandoned and to kill General Tep who has held her hostage all these years.

Her captured sister Kaley, remains by the General’s side and he is still controlling her to this day, using her now exploit others in order to help build his burgeoning real estate empire. Kaley, a victim of the Cambodian version of Stockholm syndrome, is a beautiful woman surrounded by myth and legend, she has been force fed this story about herself for so long that she is no longer sure what the truth really is. A damaged woman whom Maier believes while worth saving is too damaged to let it happen, for some lost souls it is simply too late.

Maier meets Kaley on the beach, is quickly mesmerized by her beauty and when she asks if he can find her sister, he feels compelled to say yes. Dani and Kaley share the same mission as they both are searching for the other.

Rolf refuses to leave Cambodia because he feels it is his duty to save his girlfriend, the infamous Kaley, and take her back to Germany. At first, Maier believes this to be out of misplaced notions of love but it turns out there are deeper and darker reasons.

To say more would be to spoil the plot and that is not fair to the reader or the author. I was transported by his writing and the intricate ways he chose to show how the cruelties of Cambodia’s past shaped the events taking place in the present of Tom Vater’s richly imagined novel.

It was reading time well spent and I definitely look forward to reading the next in this series.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.