The Gingerbread Houses: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 3) By Benedict J. Jones

The Gingerbread Houses is the third full length Charlie Bars thriller in this series and once again I received a digital copy compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

This round of British noir finds Charlie back at home base— the grittier side of London— once again a character in and of itself.  Mr. Jones quickly sets the scene, opening with Charlie seated in a pub—pint in one hand and book in the other.  Some time has passed since the conclusion of The Devil’s Brew and everyone is mostly healed, although Mazza is still struggling with a little PTSD from a previous violent encounter in Pennies.

Charlie and Mazza are back to work but looking for new office space. The author is not much for elaborating on regular characters or rehashing past plots but as a reader of all the Charlie Bars tales it is interesting to see how theses characters have evolved over the course of the series.

The dialog remains sharp and concise with all the usual London euphemisms.  A tale told in its usual conversational style making Charlie seem to be just your regular sort of guy…don’t be pulled into this by mistake.

Charlie is a complex character one who gains a little more depth with each subsequent outing—a man well versed in crime and violence who continues to profess a longing for a quieter life. Painting, reading, above board clients, love and family. However, circumstances always appear that drag him back down and his growing compulsion “to do the right thing” is increasingly leading him back into violence and crime.

One minute Charlie is sitting in a pub hoping for a peaceful moment with his book and his pint, the next he is approached by a former acquaintance asking for help finding information about one of Charlie’s old associates and help finding a man this potential client claims to have followed from Thailand who he believes is involved in the rape and murder of young boys.

Charlie thinks this will be an easy case and the right thing is to help get this creep off the streets, so he accepts the job. Unfortunately, or perhaps more accurately for Charlie-as per usual- not only is all not what it seems but it also turns out that his client is not the only one searching for this man.

It all becomes a complicated mess and Charlie’s choices all lead him into deeper danger and throw others into harms way as well especially after Ellie shows back up on his doorstep.

A very shady government organization who is in charge of covering up the sleazier transgressions of the higher ups is also on the trail and they are more than willing to kill to keep these secrets secret.

The dialog is sharp witty with more than a dash of humor and while dark themes abound they are not treated gratuitously there is no over the top graphic depictions of monstrous behavior or violence but make no mistake this is hard boiled noir and not for the easily squeamish. 

His accounts of violence may be short and sparse but this is by far the darkest book in the series, usually Mr. Benedict’s books feature a touch of the paranormal but here the evil is all too human.

Gingerbread Houses is the code name given to a series of locations that serve as “safe houses” for those with the money and power to indulge in sordid, inhumane and violent predilections—things that they will do anything to keep secret—a fact that is made abundantly clear to both Charlie and his client, all to soon.

I am happy to see that Ellie is back. I was also intrigued by the addition of the mysterious Hilda—a powerful semi-retired government fixer. While Mr. Jones seems to have a talent for creating fascinating powerful women on both sides of the law it also seems a waste that he often relegates these fab creations to the sidelines making them seem more plotting device than characters. They deserve much more.

My hope is that he is leaving bread crumbs (couldn’t resist the Hansel & Gretel moment) a trail to future stories.  As I said in my review of The Devil’s Brew Ellie is a fascinatingly good creation, and he teases us with even more of a hidden deeper side to Ellie here— so I continue to hope to see much more. Fair warning though—life with Charlie is not for the faint of heart.

Mr. Jones also introduces several side stories and italicized interludes that both give glimpses into the Gingerbread House past and into the violence and crime of Charlie’s own past.

This round left me with more unanswered questions than usual and a few semi plot holes.  By now I am used to “the case details” playing second fiddle to Charlie’s travails but I feel there is still some explaining left on the table. Kudos, that this is done in a way that makes me want more not less of Charlie Constantinou—so keep writing Benedict J. Jones.

If I have a quibble and it is very hard to take issue with a book and an author who continues to keep me on the edge of my seat swiping pages as fast as I can read here it is…

I felt at times the “dues ex machina” was impossible to ignore— that key characters are too conveniently awol, and IMO the behind the scene resolution is a bit tidy for the end of a Charlie Bar’s thrill ride.

 

Charlie might have had that denouement coming but one gets the sense it might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. This was reading time well spent and I am already looking forward to the next installment.

The Devil's Brew: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 2)

I was contacted by Crime Wave Press asking if I would be interested in reading The Gingerbread Houses by Benedict J. Jones which has just been released and will make the third suspense noir thriller featuring Charlie “Bars” Constantinou.

As I like to start a series at the beginning I asked and received a digital copy of his first stand alone Charlie Bars thriller  (Pennies for Charon) which I greatly enjoyed, but if you want all of Charlie’s story I suggest starting with Skewered a collection of short stories, three of which feature Charlie Bars.

The Devil’s Brew is the second full length novel in this series and once again I received a digital copy compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

Mr. Jones continues where he left off at the end of Pennies for Charon and we find both Charlie and Mazza on the mend both physically and mentally in the aftermath of that climatic conclusion. I got just enough of Mazza during this tale to make me miss him—even though he spells trouble when he is around.

With things still a little “hot” in London Charlie skips town for a bit and holes up in a remote Northumbrian cottage in the heart of the English countryside. He hopes to get some down time, come to terms with some recent dark choices and deadly results, and hopes to get back to painting and the quiet life.

Charlie is out of his element away from London and not really sure what to make of these bare open spaces and oddly enough this shows in the writing as well as it is done in a style more reminiscent of Skewered than it is of Pennies. But the writing suits the tone of this book perfectly as Charlie is trying to take a step back returning to his paintings and his former resolve for a straighter life.

No such luck for Charlie, however, as he soon finds himself enveloped in his nearest neighbors troubles who are also newcomers to the area.  I am pleased to report that we are again treated to a dark tale with a bit of a paranormal twist. 

This time around it comes in the form of an violent, twisted family ruled over by the patriarchal grandfather who still “worships” in the old way by sipping on a devil’s brew, and making sacrifices to the horned one. He thrives on manipulating his family and during the course of this we are treated to any number of evil repulsive family doings, which ends up making this book even darker than Pennies.

A green-eyed black cat turns up at Charlie’s front door and quickly takes up residence—a beautiful creature who is perhaps more than she seems. He even manages to sneak in a bit of painting in between hitting the pub and dealing with the locals.  We definitely see a different side to Charlie.

It is hard to find fault with a story that kept me glued to the page and finishing it after a couple reads. This outing is also a little more steamy as Charlie spends some time hitting the sheets.

I am appreciative of authors who write scenes with authenticity as we see here when Mazza helps Charlie prepare for a lengthy surveillance detail. This book is not without its wee bits of humor and that is certainly welcome relief in such a brutal story.

Mr. Jones sure does know his way around writing action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat and this novel does not disappoint.

 I hope this is not a spoiler but I cannot resist this comment.  Be forewarned.

 Mr. Jones introduces a romantic interest for Charlie in the form of Ellie Bashir, the woman who accounts as the sole form of law enforcement in this neck of the woods. She is one bad ass lady and provided of course that she survives her time with Charlie I would definitely read more about her, she has great main character potential, and she more than merits a stand alone of her own.

 I highly recommend this book and can’t wait to get started on The Gingerbread Houses.

  Pennies for Charon: A Charlie Bars Thriller (The Charlie Bars Thriller Series Book 1) by Benedict J. Jones

I was contacted by Crime Wave Press asking if I would interested in reading The Gingerbread Houses by Benedict J. Jones which has just been released. This title will make the third suspense noir thriller featuring Charlie “Bars” Constantinou. As I like to start a series at the beginning I asked and received a digital copy of his first stand alone Charlie Bars thriller  (Pennies for Charon) compliments of Crime Waves Press in exchange for an honest review.

After finishing Pennies for Charon I dug a little deeper into Charlie’s past by reading Skewered and Other London Cruelties as he is introduced as a character in the novella Skewered and is featured in 2 of the other shorts. I left a review for this book also.

When we first meet Charlie in Skewered he was newly out from his 3rd stint in prison, struggling to ride the straight and narrow, and nurturing his fledgling art career.  At the start of Pennies for Charon we see him with a new career but back to drinking, hanging in bars, and his painting projects languish unfinished off in the corner. He is oozing more into the gray every day.

This noir tale opens with Charlie and Mazza as partners now in a somewhat shady Private Investigation firm. What starts as a simple missing person case quickly turns into something much darker. A demon obsessed serial killer who wears pink socks, Ouija boards,  and a new rich barrister client that turns out to be just as suspicious of Charlie as Charlie is of him.

Charlie is fleshed even more as we meet his family, and an old flame/ working girl Lena. The suspense and the violence build steadily throughout the story and Charlie definitely takes a darker turn. The theme also continues…with a business partner/friend like Mazza who needs enemies, although after reading Skewered I understand more of his motive.

Benedict J. Jones has tightened up his writing in Pennies for Charon with the use of swift spare prose, with just enough gritty London-isms to give character and grit. If you like your noir with a little twist of the paranormal then you are in the right hands. Mr. Jones provides a great read and his writing just continues to get better.

Time to spark a Benson and take a bite out of The Devil’s Brew.

 Skewered: And Other London Cruelties by Benedict J. Jones

 

I bought this collection of shorts after I read Pennies for Charon, the first stand alone Charlie “Bars” Constantinou  and wanted to know more.

You first meet Charlie Bars in this dark, bleak and brutal story collection. Fresh out of his 3rd stint in prison and working in his Uncle’s kebab shop he appears as the anti-hero in 3 of the tales. He is trying to make a go of the straight and narrow but quickly falls back into gray.

Charlie Bars is a gangster who is good at solving problems and finding people, the author is still wonderfully vague at filling in Charlie’s gangster past. Providing just enough detail to make him an intriguing character. We meet Mazza and witness the formation of their PI business.

He has bad luck with women, his cases often take unexpected bad turns, and with “friends” like Mazza who needs enemies.

He is Noir perfection as I never quite know whether he is basically a good guy who occasionally does some really bad things or if he is basically a bad guy who occasionally does some really good things. Just like I like it.

Skewered and the two other shorts that feature Charlie sees Benedict J. Jones fleshing this character out and this collection shows an author who is honing his craft. The writing is great here and even better in Pennies for Charon.

I went in thinking I would just read the “Charlie Bars” stories but quickly demolished the whole book. I liked the occasional paranormal twists and some of shorts featured out of the box shockers.

Now for a cup of Devil’s Brew!

About Tom Vater

Tom Vater is a writer and publisher working predominantly in Asia. He is the co-owner of Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong based English language crime fiction imprint.

Tom is the co-author of several documentary screenplays, most notably The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature on the CIA's covert war in 1960s Laos.
 
Tom Vater is a writer working in South and South East Asia. He writes both in English and German. His articles have been published around the world. He is the author of several books and has co-written a number of documentary screenplays for European television and cinema. TIME Magazine described his recent work as 'exuberant writing'. Tom first visited Asia in 1993.
 
Arriving in India proved to be a life-changing experience. At the time, Tom was documenting the music of India's indigenous minorities for the British Library's International Music Collection. This project continues and has resulted in the collection of hundreds of hours of musical traditions, many of which are slowly fading away in the face of globalization.
 
Because of the unique contact Tom had with many indigenous communities, he began to write about minorities in South Asia. His first publication (barring a forgotten past as editor of student magazines and music critic for a German daily) was a full page spread on Nepalese folk music in Nepal's biggest English language paper in 1997. Since then, he has never looked back. Tom's work has appeared in a wide variety of publications - from well-known dailies to specialist magazines - including The Asia Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Marie Claire and Penthouse. His books on South Asian themes include two novels, several non-fiction titles, travel guides and photo books.
 
Tom often works with Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat (www.aroonthaew.com). They published the critically acclaimed regional bestseller Sacred Skin (www.sacredskinthailand.com) in 2011.
 
Tom is also the co-founder of Crime Wave Press (www.crimewavepress.com), a Hong Kong fiction imprint that endeavors to publish the best new crime novels from Asia and about Asia to readers around the globe.
 
Much of the year, Tom is on the road, researching stories, fulfilling assignments. His travels have led him (on foot) across the Himalayas, given him the opportunity to dive with hundreds of sharks in the Philippines and left him stranded in dozens of train stations, airports and bus terminals around South Asia, Europe and the US. On his journeys, he has joined sea gypsies and nomads, pilgrims and soldiers, secret agents, pirates, hippies, police men and prophets. Everyone put up with him longer than he deserved.

Website: www.tomvater.com

Here is what Tom Vater has to say about the writing of The Man With The Golden Mind
 
The Man with the Golden Mind, the second Detective Maier Mystery, has its background in one of the great barely reported secret histories of the 20th century - the US secret war in Laos.

From 1965 to 1973, the CIA ran its largest covert operation to date in Laos, a small landlocked Southeast Asian country neighboring China,Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. During this time, the American secret service trained a secret army of montagnards (ethnic minorities) to fight the Laotian communists. The secret heart of this operation was an airport called Long Cheng, deep in the Laotian jungles. From here, theUS flew aid and ammunition, troops and drugs around the country. For some years, Long Cheng was the country's second largest city and the world's busiest airport, though few people knew of its existence. As the war in Vietnam was being lost in the late 1960s, the US Air Force took over from the CIA mission and bombed the country back into the stone-age. Up to half a million people perished in the bombing, which was heavier than all the tonnage dropped during World War 2.

I first heard of Long Cheng in 2000 when I traveled across the Plain of Jars, a vast highland in northeastern Laos covered in bomb craters and unexploded ordnance, with my then wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and my brother, film maker Marc Eberle. Here, entire villages were built from US war scrap and people lost lives and limbs to buried bombs at an alarming rate, 25 years after the war had ended. We were told that no journalists had been to the secret airport since the end of the war in 1975. We were hooked on the story of "The Most Secret Place onEarth".

It took some five years to make the feature documentary about Long Cheng's rise and fall and the story of the CIA's covert war in Laos.During the research for the film, which my brother directed and for which we wrote the screenplay together, we met former CIA case officers and bureaucrats, Air America pilots, Thai mercenaries, academics, the Hmong (montagnard) general who ran the CIA's secret army and the whistleblower who uncovered the secret of the US bombing of Laos. We visited archives in the US and trawled through 1000s of photos, films and documents, returned to Laos and crisscrossed Thailand to interview countless people who played a part in the secret war.

The film was released in 2008, has shown at many film festivals and has been on TV in some thirty countries. The ABC Australia TV version(youtube.com/watch?v=i8cIki7awN8) is on youtube. My long involvement with this exquisite slice of secret 20th century history gave me the historical background for The Man with the GoldenMind(exhibitabooks.com/books/the-man-with-the-golden-mind-by-tom-vater/).

The Man with the Golden Mind is a more straightforward book than TheCambodian Book of the Dead which had genocide as its central theme,dictating a rather somber tone on the narrative.

The follow-up is lighter, the history is more digestible, though still very much n the dark side of human affairs, and the characters are just as larger than life as in the first Maier Mystery. The novel is a reflection on how secret wars are fought as well as a meditation on family relationships. And lest I forget, there are assassinations, mock executions, salacious sex, high quality drugs, sacred tattoos, serious combat and an appearance by the most infamous of US foreign secretaries to keep even the most jaded reader from slipping away.

    

 

  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.

  The Lingering by SJI Holliday

The Lingering is a chilling psychological thriller that had me compulsively reading until all hours of the night. I have been a fan of the gothic genre ever since I stumbled across Victoria Holt in my tweens.

Ms. Holliday serves up a dark, unsettling, modern version of the genre that is chock full of the classic gothic elements that fans of these novels have come to expect: ghosts, secrets, secret rooms, mysterious characters, mysterious deaths, clue filled diaries, rambling old houses with disturbing pasts, remote barren locations—chills and thrills galore.

It has all the right pieces:

The Lingering takes place in Rosalind House, an old asylum, set on the outskirts of a small English village deep in fen country— presently it is serving as home to a small reclusive commune filled with mysterious residents.

Rosalind House, once a psychiatric hospital, was already considered haunted even before the hospital was disbanded in the late 1950’s due to its barbaric treatment practices, scandal, and the suspicious drowning of a small child.

The asylum was built on property with an already dark past as the previous landowners were accused of witchcraft, their estate burnt to the ground, and several people died including children.

These historical abuses mirror contemporary horrors in Ms. Holliday’s novel—a tale constructed out of multiple story lines and told from different perspectives.

It has all the right characters:

Ali and Jack:

They are the most recent couple to take up residence at the commune—a couple looking to escape Jack’s troubled past and to find a fresh start. Ali finds herself almost instantly besieged by “paranormal” events but curiously Jack quickly begins to thrive in these new surroundings. One immediately gets the sense that perhaps Ali is more of a troubled soul than Jack. 

Angela:

She is a young woman who has worked hard to get accepted into the commune—but not to escape the “real world”—instead she is obsessed with the paranormal and it is her life’s desire to prove that ghosts exist. She has set up shop in Rosalind House with video/audio surveillance equipment in place. Often without the permission and awareness of the other residents. Angela has also connections with the villagers and the local shopkeeper is her close friend.

Smeaton Dunsmore:

The creator and leader of Rosalind House Community Project.  He grew up in the communal life and has his own ideas about how a commune should be organized and work. To this end Smeaton has devised a cultish rule book called “The Book Of Light” as a guideline for the residents to follow. It is meant to keep the “real world” at bay as much as he can.

Dr. Henry Baldock:

The young doctor who was sent to Rosalind House in 1955 to monitor and evaluate the staff at the psychiatric hospital. Ms. Holliday introduces the Doctor and the “doings” of the asylum through entries in a journal that Henry kept during his tenure at Rosalind House.

Ms. Holliday utilizes these main characters plus an abundance of minor ones to build parallel storylines that not only fill the reader with a foreboding sense of dread as the action unfolds in “real time” but she also utilizes her plethora of characters to mirror historical storylines that mesmerizingly depict a haunting sense of the evil that continues to linger on in Rosalind House long after the historical incidents occurred.

It has all the right storylines:

Contemporary:

Most of this gothic tale is told through alternating “real time” chapters that flip between the viewpoints of Ali and Angela, the stories of the two very different women who serve as The Lingering’s main characters.

Through the utilization of surveillance equipment left in Ali and Jacks’s room, Angela quickly notices that Ali seems to be experiencing paranormal phenomenon— which makes her both jealous and overly curious.

Angela’s increasing curiosity makes an already paranoid and frightened Ali edgy and defensive as she is desperate to keep her secrets—secret. Tensions quickly rise between the two—eventually spurring Ali into offensive action.

As the contemporary portion of this gothic tale reaches its climax Ms. Holliday extends our point of view to include a few “real time” chapters voiced by Smeaton Dunsmore, as more and more puzzle pieces fall into place.

The Past—both Historical and Recent:

Running parallel to these contemporary storylines are chapters that allow the readers to dip into the past.

We read selected entries from Dr. Henry Baldock’s journal—which provide a sparse history for Rosalind House in the 1950’s— providing partial details about the barbaric treatment of the psychiatric patients and the mysterious drowning death of a young boy.

We dip into conversations between Angela and various villagers that give an even shallower glimpse into the storylines surrounding the older legends that still linger around Rosalind House—ghosts, witchcraft, murders and court trials. 

We are given fascinating but skimpy chapters that delve into the back stories surrounding various main characters including— Ali, Jack, Angela and Smeaton.

Ms. Holliday also includes excerpts from the commune rule book— “The Book of Light”. 

And finally we are given various hauntings and ghost stories—both past and present.

If you are thinking “that’s a lot for one book” —join the club so was I.

But wait there’s more!

Ms. Holliday had A LOT of great ideas and an ambitious plan when she began plotting this novel. If I have a quibble and it is hard to quibble with a book that kept me up late compulsively turning pages— so let’s call my quibble a frustration.

In my own opinion—even though this novel has all the right pieces, all the right characters and all the right storylines— the decision to use ALL of them has meant—oddly enough—a case where too much turned out to be the recipe for too little.

Before I continue on with this review I just want to make it crystal clear that I really enjoyed this book. I loved the slow pace, the parallel storylines, Ms. Holliday certainly knew how to keep me turning pages and the cover is to die for.

I also flatter myself with the belief that I understand what Ms. Holliday was attempting to achieve with all these various storylines and points of view—and achieve it she most certainly did, even it came at a cost—but more on that later.

Too Much Great Stuff:

The story of Ali and Jack is more shocking than one can even imagine and this alone would have made for a hell of a read. If I could demand a prequel—believe me I would.

Plus, we have the journal outlining the barbaric treatment practices, the scandals, and the mysterious drowning that took place at the Rosalind House Psychiatric Hospital in the 1950’s.

Plus, we have the story of ghost hunting Angela snooping for ghosts in this scandal ridden haunted old asylum that is currently serving as the commune—this results into several ghost themed storylines, as well.

Plus the author gives the already creepy old asylum an even deeper disturbing past by adding in a connection to the infamous English witch trials of the 17th century.

Plus, we have the further addition of old murders, new murders, ghostly presences, evil spirits,  tortured asylum patients—and a lot of superstitious, suspicious villagers—past and present.

Plus, we have the story of  Smeaton Dunsmore, the Rosalind House Community Project and its residents.  A group of random people who seemingly live in the commune with no special interest or curiosity about the past history of the building— both in terms of it being a psychiatric hospital or its deeper past association with witchcraft. Except for Angela no one seems interested at all.

Of course we don’t really know this for sure as none of the characters other than Ali and Angela get more than a surface skim. The same hold true for plot lines—other than the “real time” alternating storyline between Ali and Angela few storylines get developed as much as I would have liked.

Inevitably and unfortunately this results in some storylines that don’t quite feel real and relegates most characters to paper thin caricatures—often only fleshed out as overly convenient contrivances to further the plot.

 In the end, it is just too much for a novel of this length—in my own opinion— Ms. Holliday should have gone deep—instead she remained in the shallows and thus the tale overflows—of course, it overflows with great ideas and excellent writing—lucky for us readers.

Myself— I would have liked to have seen the book twice as long.

This would have allowed for more insight and background into all of the residents, more about the asylum, more about the witches— I really regretted this lack (especially since one of the commune residents made a special herbal tea with secret ingredients) and I stand by my belief that the story of Ali and Jack deserves a prequel.

I feel writing more will come at the expense of intriguing plot lines and that is not fair to other readers or the author but I do want to write more about some of the deeper themes that Ms. Holliday explored. I particularly love reading a book that makes me think and impels me to take a deeper look. (Which accounts for the length of this book review cum thesis project!)

It has all the right themes:

Theme One: Can evil linger long after an initial incident occurs? 

Ms. Holliday utilized mirroring as a stylized writing technique to great effect in portraying this theme. Her writing vividly captured a sense of inevitable dread—that the past was fated to repeat itself over and over again until said evil was finally exorcised. 

The historical incidents that happened at Rosalind House during the witch trials of the late 17th century when its mistress was accused and persecuted as a witch are precisely mirrored by the entries in Dr. Henry Baldock’s journal which document the persecution of a female patient accused of insanity.

The present day Rosalind Community Project serves as yet another reflection of these past evils- the present day storyline of Ali/Angela precisely mirror the actions and events that took place at the asylum in the 1950’s.

Ms. Holliday constructs her novel utilizing the multiple reflections of a lingering remnant of evil like a fun house mirror where these same evil actions are repeated over and over again.

Theme Two: Can good people be coerced into doing bad things? Can innocent people be coerced into confession?

There are storylines that allude to the power of manipulation, coercion, and control that run in parallel threads throughout this whole book and again, Ms. Holliday holds up her mirror.

This time it casts a reflection on these elemental evils as they float through the story of Rosalind House and she uses her mirror to reflect the treatment of witches on to the treatment of women psychiatric patients on to the treatment of commune/cult members, and finally on to the shocking tale of Ali and Jack.

The Persecution and Torture of Women Accused of Witchcraft.

Full disclosure, I am a Birth Doula and a childbirth educator, so I could easily write a full length dissertation on this theme. I will do my best to keep it short.

History is written by the victorious —by those who knew how to read and write— the poor illiterate “witch” did not record her story—and more specifically not the peasant women who served their communities as lay healers and midwives. We know their stories only as filtered through the revisionist history of men.

In fact, up until the rise of the male dominated medical profession—it was women who played a central role in healing and childbirth. This was accomplished by primarily as a word of mouth tradition, one that was handed down from woman to woman.

The rise of witch hunting in Europe “coincidentally” arose during the rise of the male medical professional and indeed the most virulent of witch hunts are often associated with historical periods of great social upheaval.

The rise of the male dominated medical profession continued to produce doctors— so more realms of “practice” became necessary to fuel the careers of these self-proclaimed elite men of science. The fledgling wing of obstetrics saw its “birth” as a male medical profession during this period. 

This was accomplished by the conscious deliberate attempts of men to exclude all women from the professional practice of medicine. The rise of the -elite male medical profession- was built on the manipulation, coercion, and suppression of women healers and accomplished with the full support of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) and the European ruling classes.

The propaganda was quickly spread that the male dominated medical profession alone could bring the benefits of science to medicine and thus the public had to be protected from the ignorance of traditional healers—who were often portrayed as slovenly, superstitious, quacks—and if that didn’t work, persecuted as witches and burnt at the stake.

Science and religion normally make for strange bedfellows nowadays so it is easy to forget the closely intertwined relationship of early physicians and the Church. The church made for a perfect partner as religion is no stranger to using coercive, manipulative strategies— convert them or kill them—inquisitions and crusades—confession gained through torture.

While it is certain that witches lived and died long before the development of medical technology and the rise of physicians—it is also certain that the great majority of “witches” were in fact lay healers serving the masses. The suppression of these healers marks a potent salvo in the history of man’s suppression of women. As many as 85% of all “witches” persecuted, tortured, and burnt at the stake were female-women, young girls, and children.

For centuries, common folk believed in the existence of witches and magic, indeed most humans did—rich and poor— and it is easy to shrug off this bit of history as the superstition laden mass delusions of hysterical pitchfork wielding peasants—it is simply not the truth.

The reasoning behind this surge of witchcraft trials is very complex indeed and once you remove the convenient scapegoating of the peasantry then it becomes clear that it was more economy driven— a quest by various male driven factions to gain market share. One such faction was the elite man of science who wished to practice medicine.

As any medical doctor could tell you when it comes to winning people to your side there is no better method than stoking people’s fears and then assuring them that you alone offer the best protection from evil and harm.

Witchcraft accusations made for an expedient way to remove inconvenient women who stood in the way of what men desired for themselves— the previously untapped market share of the “handy woman” who practiced lay healing and midwifery.

These fledgling physicians used these existent fears to flame some already present cultural prejudices and so stoked the belief that women are inherently weaker than men and are more susceptible to evil. What are women other than flighty emotional creatures who are ruled by superstitions, they are certainly not stalwart doctors—men ruled by science.

What indeed was a man to do?

The Persecution and Torture of Women Accused of Insanity (Hysteria)

Alas, at the end of the 18th century burning inconvenient women at the stake fell out of fashion—no longer politically correct or socially acceptable—unfortunately for men, in the 19th century, women still persisted in being difficult.

Once again social upheaval was afoot-both in the 1800’s and again in the 1950’s, women were actively protesting against traditional gender roles—these were periods of female unrest and women’s suffrage.

So the elite male needed a new way to control women—a new brand of witch hunt, if you will, after all one the modern day definitions of “witch hunt” is false persecution.

The new “witches” were women who rebelled against domesticity, who pushed back against their social situations, who questioned the authority of men and believe me—men had very definite ideas of how women should behave.

A women’s place was in the home dedicated to the domestic pleasures of keeping house and raising children. Women continued to be viewed by men as delicate and fragile creatures who were susceptible to nervous breakdown.

And once again, medical men of science came to the rescue-this time period saw the fledgling wing of psychiatry taking flight and the Victorian era psychiatric hospital was born. While no doubt there are genuine mental illnesses and indeed psychiatry has made great strides in the successful treatment of mental illness—-there is also no doubt that the following is equally true.

These asylums became catch all facilities for difficult women— women who pushed back against their social situations and in return were often the very ones given a diagnosis of insanity and institutionalized.

Difficult women were often diagnosed with a condition known as Hysteria which was a unique “female only” malady that consisted of a wide range of strange behaviors and “nerve” symptoms—a condition that should and indeed could only be cured by a man. A convenient way for an “elite male” society to continue to control women, whose problems were all emotional and in their heads—anyway.

Victorian era psychiatric hospitals specifically used medicine to police the behavior of  women and the cornerstone of Victorian psychiatry was built on the belief that male dominance was both therapeutic and the vital ingredient necessary to keep women in their rightful place, for her own good, men know best after all.

Early psychiatric treatments as practiced on these women, at their most basic level, were never about mental acuity or medical treatment instead it was about exerting control over women’s lives and their bodies. Women were literally punished with psychiatry for breaking social norms and were deemed social deviants and moral misfits.

The traditional treatments for daring to disagree were quite harsh, isolation and restraint were implemented to bring an enforced segregation from home, family, and society. These treatments included but were not limited to beatings, restraints, cold water shock therapy (immersion or being hosed down), purged, bled, vomited, induction of high fevers, drugs, convulsive shock therapy, and electro shock therapy.

Asylums like the fictionalized Rosalind House fell out of favor as such barbaric treatments were no longer deemed politically correct or socially acceptable and were mostly disbanded by the end of the 1950’s.

Alas, what was a man to do?

Like a sore thumb— the inconvenience of “hysterical” dissatisfied women persisted so new tools once again became necessary. Tools such as minor tranquilizers, like Valium, were used to “quiet down” the women who still gave voice to their discontent.

Childbirth (a natural female bodily function) became a medical condition at the rise of Obstetrics.  Womanly dissatisfaction is not synonymous with insanity but still so it became a medical condition at the rise of Psychiatry. Both uniquely female conditions that could only be cured by the elite men of science.

These are favorites subjects of mine and I could write forever about them but I am stopping now.

I hope I have provided enough background to give voice to a source of evil that lurks in humanity and in a society that allows this type of barbarous treatment to linger, which is why I believe that Ms. Holliday used both of these times as mirrors to this same sense of evil.

If you are thinking that these psychiatric treatments seem more like torture techniques—join the club so was I—-and scarily enough so was the American CIA.

The author took her book along a different trajectory but I want to stay on the same course for  just one moment more and put up a mirror that continues to emphasize her theme— that this real life evil remains and still lingers on in humanity.

Ms. Holliday mostly kept her focus on the “elite male’s” suppression of women through history but the practices of manipulation, coercion, and control are in fact quite “equal opportunity” as this modern version of a witch hunt reveals.

The immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks— the post 9/11 conduct of the CIA.

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.

The resultant scramble dissolved into a “witch hunt” to find the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the “mythical” Weapons of Mass Destruction with the American government sanctioning 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.

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 The Lingering 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 during the Witch Trials and Victorian Era Asylums that preceded it.

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, taking as their playbook all the psychiatric techniques outlined in the above section and more. When this classified program started to gain public notice the CIA responded by covering up evidence and destroying documents.

Yet another reflection of lingering evil —a fun house mirror where these types of evil actions are repeated over and over again. Are we doomed or can in fact they be exorcised?

Cults and Communes

Ms. Holliday selects the location of a commune as the setting for The Lingering.  Cults and communes are infamous in their use of coercion, manipulation, and control to get “members” to drink their flavor of Kool-Aid. They are also quite infamous for their suppression of women—particularly the religious ones.

The Rosalind House Community Project seems quite mild in comparison but does in fact come complete with confining and controlling rules as laid forth in “The Book of Light”.

The Final Fun House Twist to the Mirror

All that is now missing is the voice of the doctor, the interrogator, the judge, the psychiatrist, the torturer…the voice that manipulates, subdues, coerces and ultimately tortures:

I am subduing…restraining you for your own protection. It pains me to treat you in this manner, I am not this person- but you leave me no choice. I am only trying to appeal to your logical reasoning—I am just trying to help you, but please believe that I will do anything to get the truth I need. Your continued noncooperation hurts me hurts your family. It is your choice not to cooperate just realize that this is as easy as it is going to get. It is your actions that have resulted in you being treated this manner.

I beg you to tell me the truth I want to hear, alter your behavior, stop being disagreeable stop being inconvenient and accept the role that society has mandated for women… Tell me what I want to hear so that I can end your suffering, send you home, get justice for my people…get the results that prove me right.

Ms. Holliday gives us this voice with a fun house mirror that completely turns the tables— the shocking back story of Ali and Jack— fair warning beware the dedication of an elite female clinical researcher looking to prove her scientific theorem and more importantly— herself right.

For the majority of The Lingering we read about historical instances involving the ‘elite male professional’ and their mistreatment of women—but that only reflects one side of the whole—as women are just as capable of mastering the arts of manipulation, suppression, coercion, and indeed torture.

There were plenty of instances where women accused fellow women of witchcraft, insane asylums saw their fare share of oppressive, dehumanizing Nurse Ratcheds, and while not as prevalent as the male variety— women are also sociopaths, psychopaths, and homicidal maniacs.

It turns out that Ali was first attracted to The Rosalind Community Project because of her fascination with psychology and psychiatry and is a huge fan of the work of Dr. Henry Baldock — an interest that she shares with Smeaton.

How far is Ali willing to go to coerce her subject into proving her scientific thesis—is chemically suppressing her subject justified when it ends in the desired results—how far Ali wonders should she manipulate tests to prove her point?

Ali is fascinated by the human mind and what it can do, and with what provokes group behavior, the herd mentality—the role of coercion and what impact comes from controlling the behavior of others.

Ali tells Smeaton: I think we are all capable of being bad. We all have a shadow side. What interests me is what makes that side reveal itself. What prompts people to do the things they do, when they do the most awful things?

Ali’s thesis: Can an amoral monster be conceived and nurtured—can one transform an inherently good person into an evil person? What techniques are necessary to achieve the desired outcome? Will the subject remain evil after the treatment or will the subject revert to form?

This is one of the most fascinating parts of The Lingering and like I keep saying it deserves to be its own book and while I am tempted to “linger on” exploring the depths of Ms. Holliday’s themes — but it is past time to move on.

I enjoyed my time spent on the darker side of humanity, I highly recommend The Lingering—it was reading time well spent. I greatly look forward to reading more of Ms. Holliday’s work.

  Breakers by Doug Johnstone

Breakers is a brief vignette into the world of seventeen year old Tyler Wallace—a bit of writing that brilliantly captures an emotional turning point in Tyler’s young life. Doug Johnstone takes us readers on a “poverty safari” -to quote Tyler— through Edinburgh’s underclass using sparse clean language to create a tense, deeply moving book that is filled with a sense of gritty realism.

We find Tyler living in a housing project with his junkie mother and his younger sister, Bean. His older half siblings live next door and have seemingly coerced Tyler into a life of crime. They are “breakers” and utilize the slim Tyler to easily slip through fan lights which are often left unlocked to rob upperclass homes. His half siblings fence the stolen merchandise for cash and in return for his services Tyler gets a cut.

The reality is more complicated than that of simple coercion— this is a hard compromise. Tyler submits to the needs of his half siblings and participates in this life of crime as way to not only protect his sister— but as the most expedient means to keep a roof over their heads, food in their mouths and most importantly to Tyler—his family together.

The harsh reality is that he has become the “adult” in Bean’s life, his own life, and he often plays the role of adult for his own mother. Tyler may be a criminal with a sketchy track record at school but he does not drink or do drugs.

Tyler is doing the best he can to create a “normal” childhood for Bean, but because of their toxic home life, Tyler’s choices while perhaps necessary for survival are putting him on an increasingly slippery downhill slope and into circumstances where his decisions have increasingly darker consequences. “Lesser of two evils.” is still an evil choice.

During a solo break-in he accidentally meets Flick, a posh girl, who boards at a private school while her military parents are stationed in Afghanistan. She lives in a rich girl’s version of a toxic family. They quickly bond.

One night Tyler’s half brother makes the decision to break into the “wrong” house…

Mr. Johnstone crafts a bevy of believable characters and under his sure hands the Edinburgh underclass springs to life—the story that ensues is action packed, menacing and violent. It is also filled with brief glimpses of compassion, forgiveness, and the power of the simplest of humane gestures—that kindness pays forward even in this noir version of Edinburgh.

I feel that to say more about the story that ensues would come at the risk of spoiling an excellent plot and that is not fair to the author or to other readers but I do have a few other thoughts.

This past fall I binge watched the epic crime series The Wire, in which the drug infested projects of East Baltimore, MD play a main character.  This is a cop show and the action is mostly driven between interactions between cops, government officials, criminals, and drug kingpins.

For me, the most compelling part of The Wire were the scenes that followed the lives of children who inhabited these Baltimore projects children caught up in a toxic society —not from choice— but from circumstance, a world where basic day to day survival and crime often made for the most expedient of bedfellows.

Little vignettes that showed the cost of poverty on these children living in a broken society, often in graphic horrifying detail. Kids using drug money to keep their families together, food on the table, and a roof over their heads—father in the wind and junkie mother high on the couch.

Tales of redemption and escape were few and far between and were predominantly a matter of right place, right time, right person and a will to fight against the current. This also holds true for Tyler Wallace.

By the end of Breakers Tyler’s life will have pivoted in many ways but at what cost? 

Throughout the novel, Tyler must make a series of necessary but increasingly dark decisions—detoxifying perhaps -but to an expedient mind choices that will make day to day survival even trickier especially as his needs remain the same— his family together, food on the table and a roof over their heads.

The question remains will this darker version of Tyler take this opportunity to break away from his life as a criminal or will he continue to let the currents of necessity lead him along expedient paths.

Inevitably bowing to harsh circumstances that are almost always impossible to escape. This somber grayness is what gave this story its realistic grit and made for reading time well spent.

I look forward to reading more of Doug Johnstone’s novels and would not be averse to learning more of the fate of Tyler Wallace. I am also looking into downloading his playlist.

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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.