The Man With The Golden Mind (The Detective Maier Series #2) by Tom Vater

TMWTGM by Tom Vater is the second thriller in his Detective Maier series.  I requested and received a digital copy compliments of Crime Wave Press in exchange for an honest review.

Mr. Vater imagines a complex protagonist in Maier, 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.  He makes his living specializing in Southeast Asian cases, the first novel saw him in Cambodia and now this new case brings him to Laos.

I read the first Detective Maier novel (The Cambodian Book of the Dead) earlier this year and couldn’t wait to dip right back into Maier’s world.  It is the Fall of 2001 and we find Maier back in Hamburg barely recovered from this previous case.

 The writing tone is completely different this go around and at first this threw me a little— as it is almost as if Mr. Vater is writing Maier 2.0.

 Turns out there are several reasons for this:

  1. According to Mr. Vater, he felt the Cambodian setting of the first novel and its underlying story of the inhumanity of The Killing Fields with its 50 years of war, famine, genocide and cultural collapse demanded a more somber tone.
  2. Furthermore, during most of the action in TCBOTD Maier is narrating the story while being drugged and/or beaten or while he is recovering from being drugged and/or beaten—I believe that Mr. Vater understandably went for a more surrealistic fever dream point of view. That book as a whole and like Cambodia, itself, has a much more mystical feel.

Maier’s second outing is a great thriller, one that is all the greater for being wrapped around real mysteries and crimes. This time the action takes place in Laos, a land locked country that, in 2001, is still recovering from the chaos of the Viet Nam war.

This case is set against the backdrop of an unimaginable hidden truth—that of the secret war run by the American CIA in Laos during the Viet Nam War—A war that resulted in Laos becoming the most bombed country of the 20th century— one that was mostly covered up and barely reported by the press.

Mr. Vater is a master of plot and character—his writing is precise, satirical and right on target but what really makes these books shine is the author’s deep familiarity with South East Asia. He mines that base of knowledge to the great advantage of his readers utilizing it to evoke for his novels a stunning sense of place and richly imagined scenes.

This is a complicated read, much more complex than the previous book, and one that is full of both surprising revelations and high adrenaline non-stop action.  As a reader I was propelled forward at break neck speed and while this tale is told with quite a bit of sly humor it takes a dark mind to appreciate the wit, which is one the best characteristics of such well executed noir. 

It is obvious that the need to tell this story was personal for Tom Vater, it is a stunning bit of lost history that deserves seeing some daylight, a project that he helped document in 2008 with his brother and former wife. TMWTGM gets extremely personal for Maier as well and in ways that none of his prior cases have—but no spoilers. We even learn his first name and some understanding why he prefers to go by Maier.

The case revolves around a lost CIA base, a killer(s), a secret stash of gold and heroin, a legendary missing CIA file, and its keeper—Weltmeister, a German US CIA asset during the Viet Nam War who has resurfaced after spending the last 25 years in the cold. 

A wealthy client, Julia Rendel, the daughter of an East German cultural attache to Laos, is seeking the identity of her father’s killer, and the truth behind his murder in Long Cheng, a CIA run secret airbase in the center of the Laotian jungle, in 1976. Maier’s boss taps him to solve this 25 year old murder.

It is a far from easy case as Julia is quickly kidnapped right from under Maier’s nose and Maier follows the trail based on what little clues he possesses from a swanky Hamburg hotel room to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos.

Also different his time around, Mr. Vater employs one of my favorite plotting styles as the action shifts from the present of 2001, as Maier attempts to both find the truth and his client,  to the past of 1976 as seen through the eyes of Weltmeister.

 He also uses various point of views—Maier, Weltmeister, and briefly, Sundermann, Maier’s boss all carry the narrative at some point. 

Once in Laos, as Maier begins working the case, he meets one shady character after the next and as the action progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that Maier isn’t so much leading the investigation as the case is dragging Maier along by the cahonas.

His own “little head” thinking also gets him into trouble first by causing him to lose his client and second by blinding him to the hidden motives of both the client and her associate, Kanitha, a rookie journalist, who quickly attaches herself to the case and to Maier.

Over all there a lot of characters to keep track of this time around including the timely  return of a colorful character from Maier’s previous case.

TCBOTB was often written with Maier being in a haze of drugs and torture where you never quite knew what was the truth and when it was just the drugs talking—it dealt with metaphor—ghosts, goddesses and white spiders. This book is more straightforward in the sense that the action comes solely from the complicated swirling plot lines—there are a lot of connections to be made between characters both past and present—a whiteboard might indeed come in handy—but it is well worth the effort.

It all combines to make a thrilling read that while literate is also steeped in the culture of Laos—both sacred and pop—all served with a history lesson that is dropped like a cherry on the top.

The golden mind of Tom Vater speaks with an individual voice making his work to stand out from the often formulaic mass of recent detective writing. Tom Vater’s work is not for the faint of heart but is indeed reading time well spent.

I look forward in meeting up again with Detective Maier and Tom Vater in Thailand for round three: The Monsoon Ghost Image.

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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.