Sometimes the same is different, author Tom Vater reminds us to impressive effect in his second novel, THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD (Crime Wave Press – 2012).
There is familiarity to this tale, set in Cambodia starting off in 1997 with appropriate fast forwards and flashbacks to other key times in the unkind histories of Cambodia and Europe. Maier is a war correspondent turned private investigator after a traumatic event early on claims the life of his good friend, Hort. What is different about this P.I. is that he packs no heat, doesn’t like beer or music, can roll his own smokes, which contain no tobacco and speaks English with German precision. The 6’ 2”, green-eyed, handlebar mustachioed, 45 year old protagonist, is not from Berlin in West Germany; he’s from Hamburg to the North, before and after the iron curtain came down. Maier has brains and ample brawn and a nose that can sniff out trouble, but he prefers observation and interrogation to fist fights or gunfire. When thirsty, a vodka and orange juice does the trick.
In Chapter Four, The Heart of Darkness, I knew I was all in for this South East Asian mystery. Cambodia and the characters it attracts, for its wild east ways, provide a central role throughout. Vater’s descriptive narrative in the crowded bar and on the streets of Cambodia is stellar. You are where you want to be. You learn what you need to know.
From the High Times Magazine reference, to the three strengths of happy pizza one can order, to the sounds of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, to an American Viet Nam War Vet bar owner with tattooed arms nicknamed, Snakearm Leroux, which Maier meets down the potholed road – this is expat Cambodia. You might wish the atrocities; violence; land mines; corrupt Generals; amputees; poverty and ambivalence towards death were all imagined but not so. Cambodia has long been and is, different. If you have been there, so much the better for this adventure ride.
The plot is basic but care needs to be given towards the sub-plots, the many characters and their intertwined roles. Maier has been hired in Germany by a coffee empire matron to return to Cambodia so he can find and learn about her son, the heir to the caffeine fortune. The son has chosen Cambodia to start a new life and a scuba diving school on the coastal town of Kep, for reasons the mother cannot fathom.
My only nitpick with this novel has to do with Tom Vater going 9 out of 10 in following Elmore Leonard’s, Ten Rules for Good Writing. Improvement could be made on Rule #6 in my opinion: “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” Vater describes, accurately, the hell of Cambodia but “suddenly” a few less times would have kept me on track with the story and not drifting to thoughts of another author.
Maier’s former life as a war correspondent rekindles a relationship with an old colleague, Carissa. Danger and romance soon follow. Things get interesting when a scuba diving trip reveals that going barefoot in Cambodia, as many of the natives do, is preferable to wearing a makeshift pair of cement shoes. Life can be as cheap as dirt, rocks and spilt beer in Cambodia.
The antagonist, The White Spider, brings us back to familiar territory. The tag line on the cover of The Cambodian Book of the Dead, reads: It’s where Apocalypse Now meets The Beach. The 1974 novel and 1976 movie, Marathon Man may be more a more apt substitution for the latter. More than once, The White Spider and his villainous ways reminded me of, The White Angel of Auschwitz and the dental scene with Dustin Hoffman. One thing is certain: Cambodia is not safe, for anyone, particularly the fictitious.
I thoroughly enjoyed THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD. It has fluid writing and a smart protagonist. The characters are well conceived and believable. The vivid and accurate depiction of Cambodia and its atrocious history provides an education while you are being entertained. Political viewpoints can be found among the pages but only accurate ones. As the narrative sums up: “Death knew no ideology. One could become a war criminal in any culture.” Tom Vater gets that right and many other things right, in this recommended read.