The Nation



In the country of ghosts

Tom Vater's detective yarn reads Cambodia true before losing its way

The Cambodian Book of the Dead

By Tom Vater

Published by Crime Wave Press, 2012

Available at leading bookshops

Tom Vater is a veteran journalist on the Asian beat. He certainly knows his Cambodia. His descriptions of Phnom Penh, Kep and Siem Reap are spot-on. His novel "The Cambodian Book of the Dead" advertises itself as the first of a series featuring the German detective Maier.

Maier (no first name) grew up in East Germany under the communist government and worked as a foreign correspondent in East Europe. He slipped over to the West before the Berlin Wall fell and became a war correspondent for a German news agency for the next decade. This career ended when a Khmer Rouge mortar shell killed his Cambodian colleague Hort. Maier then became a detective for a Hamburg agency, specialising in international cases. The case he is on now brings him back to Cambodia.

An heiress to a coffee fortune hires Maier to report on her only son and induce him to come home. Rolf Muller-Overbeck is running a dive shop in the seaside town of Kep. He is also involved with a beautiful local woman named Kaley.

On the flight to Phnom Penh, Maier provides a thumbnail history of Cambodia: medieval empire, French colony, independent nation under Prince Sihanouk, the American B-52 bombings, the terror of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invasion. "Finally, Untac, the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia, had shown up, organised elections of sort and had then fled the burnt-out, tired country as quickly as possible".

Maier surveys his fellow plane passengers. "Young, self-confident backpackers in search of post-war adventures, a French tour group in search of temples and a few old men in search of women, or children, or anything else that would be available in hell for a few dollars, had replaced the soldiers and gangsters who along dared to fly into Phnom Penh a few years earlier."

In Phnom Penh, Maier heads for the Foreign Correspondents Club. His description of the riverside Sisowat Quay is brilliant, as well everyone's favourite late night dive of choice, the Heart of Darkness, throbbing with disco music and wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke.

He runs into an old flame, Carissa Stevenson, a Kiwi reporter from the Untac days, who leads him to meet Pete, an English wide-boy, who is Rolf's partner in the Kep dive shop. With him at a table are Kep, a former Khmer Rouge general, and his murderous son, who actually does plug an obstreperous bar customer that night.

The scene shifts to Kep, the town, where Maier enters the only bar on the beach, the Last Filling Station, and meets Les Snakearm Leroux.

"The old American behind the counter gave a friendly nod and lit a joint. The moist and pungent smoke rolled through the heavy air toward Maier. The proprietor was a small, fat man with hair, tattooed arms that stuck out of an old sleeveless Bruce Springsteen T-shirt. Born in the USA, no doubt about it. His lumpy face, in which two beady eyes threatened to drown, descended to several ridges of double chins. His voice had crawled out of a Louisiana backwater and forgotten to dry off. The thumb of his right hand was missing. He was a character."

This style of vivid prose picks up pace when Maier meets Rolf and accompanies him on a drive trip to Koh Tonsay - Rabbit Island. There is a magnificent description of sharks eating a corpse that has been recently deposited on the seafloor with its feet tied to stones. Rolf knows the victim - Sambat, co-founder with his twin sister of an orphanage in Kampot.

We're nearly a third into the book now and the plot loses its wheels. There's the mysterious Kaley, who may be a reincarnated malevolent spirit, and a mysterious German, "the White Spider", with a Nazi and Yugoslav communist past, who had been an adviser to General Tep and the Khmer Rouge. And there's a mysterious Russian, Vladimir, who is holed up in the old French hill resort of Bokor, an old, fat homosexual giant alcoholic who may be a world-class professional assassin.

All these are jumbled together in a plot of increasing complexity and absurdity. Maier is captured, drugged and tortured, not once, not twice, but three times. The story also moves, absurdly, to an ancient temple in the Angkor complex, headquarters for a cadre of crop-haired teenage orphan girls clad in black pyjamas and rubber-tyre sandals who've been trained as Khmer Rouge-style killers. There are heaps of bloody explosions and large dollops of violence and torture porn.

The novel, which had begun with such style and promise, degenerates into a ridiculous shambles, amid much pretentious verbiage about how Cambodia is cursed, doomed and riddled with ghosts. It is cursed by a seemingly skilled writer who turns out to be considerably less so.

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