The Monsoon Ghost Image 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.

  The Man With The Golden Mind 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.

  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.