The Monsoon Ghost Image (The Detective Maier Series #3) by Tom Vater

The Monsoon Ghost Image (The Detective Maier Series #3) by Tom Vater

TMGI by Tom Vater is the third and perhaps final thriller in the Detective Maier trilogy.  I requested and received a digital copy compliments of Crime Wave Press in exchange for an honest review.

Vater has certainly imagined a complex protagonist in Maier, an East German man who was once a war correspondent and now works as a PI for the premiere Sundermann agency in Hamburg, Germany, specializing in South East Asian cases.  However, it is his past as a journalist that catches up to Maier in The Monsoon Ghost Image.

Maier’s old colleague, Martin Ritter, an internationally renowned war photographer, is presumed dead when his boat exploded off the shore of Thailand, along with all the other passengers on board.

But not so fast—Ritter’s wife, Emilie, receives photographic evidence that Martin is alive and roaming the streets of Bangkok. Emilie, also a colleague of Maier’s during those years, hires the Sundermann Agency and specifically Maier to help find Ritter and to find out why her husband has apparently faked his own death.

It pays to realize that most of the action in The Cambodian Book of the Dead, first of this trilogy, finds Maier narrating a story in which he is in the process being drugged and/or beaten or while he is recovering from being drugged and/or beaten.

With barely a breather the following book, The Man With the Golden Mind was brutal, violent, and extremely personal for our German detective so I expected to find Maier back in Hamburg licking his wounds— depressed and reeling— but to find him a self-pitying slob reduced to drinking Campari Orange seems a harsh form of self punishment even from an author that pulls no punches.

In typical Vater fashion the case is a mere facade for something way deeper and it doesn’t take long to realize that the detective agency and particularly Maier have been manipulated into a back door scheme by a person who identifies herself only as the Wicked Witch of the East.

She soon sends them another digital image—a photograph code named the Monsoon Ghost Image that captures visual proof of a post 9/11 CIA rendition and torture of a suspected Muslim terrorist on Thai soil.

Plot spoiling actions happen at this juncture as through a sudden sharp turn of events— Maier and Mikhail twist from being the hunters into being hunted now that the detective agency is in sole possession of this damning photograph.

Ritter, the man behind the camera, has flipped to the dark side and was planning on optioning the MGI off to the highest bidder only to have it stolen by The Wicked Witch of the East and now he is looking not only to get it back but revenge as well.

In fact everyone in the picture is looking for it and will seemingly stop at nothing to get it back. As readers we are treated to a vast array of characters ranging from CIA baddies, to Thai generals, to hypnotic mind melting psychopathic doctors, to millionaire sociopaths— all with one thing in common they are all hot on the trail, if not a couple steps ahead of Maier and Mikhail.

Throughout the course of this trilogy Vater proves himself a master of plot and character—his writing is precise, satirical and right on target but what continues to shine is the author’s deep familiarity with South East Asia. He repeatedly mines that base of knowledge to evoke for his novels a stunning sense of place and richly imagined scenes.

This time, under the sure hands of Tom Vater the dark side of Thailand springs to life in vivid detail. The readers get a birds’ eye view of it all—from the back streets of Bangkok, Thai torture chambers, hedonistic party islands, sea gypsies and a millionaire’s island retreat that masquerades as a modern day Jurassic Park where men with too much money and time on their hands hunt humans instead of dinosaurs as sport.

While the island adventures of Maier and Mikhail with their sly wink at both Jurassic Park and Rambo might very well be over the top and leave one shaking their head they are nevertheless very entertaining to read.

This is another complicated twisty plot—you might need to get out that white board again—it is also a very disturbing read. The death toll is extremely high in this last entry into the world of Maier and is is filled with violence, torture, savagery, and mutilation—the extreme black of noir.

To say more would come at the expense of spoiling a great plot and that is not fair to other readers or to the author but I do as per my usual have a few more thoughts to share.

It is my thought that perhaps when Tom Vater first starting thinking of writing this trilogy it was because he wanted to highlight three moments in history and that Maier was born as a way to string his political agenda into a cohesive series.

However, it is also true that some characters seem to know their own minds and write their own stories. Maier and certainly Mikhail quickly morphed into book-stealing juggernauts that ride Vater’s taut well-crafted plots like monster trucks crashing over top of the political outrage that outlines a path below the fiction.

  1. The Cambodian Book of the Dead is set in the Cambodia of 2001 and Vater paints a vivid picture of the country as it re-emerged from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse. A Cambodian history lesson about the tragedy of the regime of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. A thoughtful look at genocide, globalization, and expatriate exploitation of the local economy.
  2. The Man With the Golden Mind 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. It is a stunning bit of lost history that deserves seeing some daylight, a project that Vater helped document in 2008 with his brother and former wife.
  3. The Monsoon Ghost Image is set in the Thailand of 2002 and is a tale of murder, torture, terrorism, and rendition. Riding underneath this outrageous spy thriller is a savage indictment of how the American government conducted itself overseas in a post 9/11 world.

I was curious as I read my way through this trilogy of thrillers why Vater decided to set them in 2001-2, the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With TMGI his choice becomes clear, as perhaps, it was always on his agenda to shine a harsh light on America throughout the trilogy and in particular through TMGI— the post 9/11 conduct of the CIA.

September 11, 2001 is a day that will always be burned into my memory from turning on the TV and watching live and in shock as the second plane flew into the second tower to the horror of realizing that the jet that flew so low over my house was the one that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania. It was a tragic and horrible day.

Disturbingly what has sprung from that infamous act of terrorism is an American response that ignited two wars: The conflict in the Middle East that continues to this day and the War on Terror that also continues to this day.

In the resultant scramble to find the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the “mythical” Weapons of Mass Destruction the American government sanctioned the CIA to use whatever means they saw fit to find justice for the American people.

The CIA saw fit to implement the practice of rendition, in other words— sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners.

Tom Vater through TMGI asks the question of how low did the CIA stoop to get answers about terrorism and those mythical weapons of mass destruction and how far were they willing to go to keep these tactics a secret?

The plot for TMGI is action packed, edge of your seat, violent, deranged, outrageous and disturbing. It, horrifically, is a pale shadow compared to the truth, a reality that is still as relevant today in 2020 as it was back in 2002.

Even a brief look on Wikipedia reveals that the CIA paid two unqualified psychologists more than $80M to develop an enhanced interrogation technique that allowed for both physical and mental torture that was to be conducted in black sites on foreign soil, the hosting countries were compensated with huge payoffs for their cooperation. When this classified program started to gain public notice the CIA responded by covering up evidence and destroying documents.

Another point made by Vater is how easy it is for Americans to look away and ignore, but isn’t this true for all humans—including Germans? I do like a book that causes me to think and to take a stance for my beliefs so here goes:

As an American, who lives in the almost Midwest— these wars— unless I choose to let them, have no impact on my day to day life. In today’s America the popular vote does not elect presidents—the electoral college does. In today’s America the majority of public opinion doesn’t determine the course of justice—the ruling Senate majority does.

If I direct my focus solely towards the things that I cannot control, cannot change and where my actions have zero effect— then my mind suffers. My mind settles best through the practice of the Yoga Sutras and utilizing the tenets of Buddhism—philosophies that look in rather than without.

There is no escaping that I live in a completely globalized world that is incredibly complex—one where there are no easy answers or solutions to anything. Ancient aphorisms often stumble along this path but for the most part I trust their wisdom.

I would rather a quiet mind so I chose to pick my own battles. I chose to focus my thoughts and my actions on providing solutions to problems within my own wheelhouse where I can indeed effect change. Women heading into the technological minefield of birth need and deserve all the assistance I can muster.

Judge me as you like but sitting here at my desk in the early days of 2020— I am finding myself hard pressed to even justify defining America as a democracy anymore. Alright—alright, no need to threaten water boarding…

The Detective Maier trilogy has made for some very well spent reading time—on all fronts. I highly recommend all three—and reading them in order. One question remains will Tom Vater have more to say and continue on with this epic series or will Maier “ghost” us leaving one to forever ponder his fate.

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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.