Fifty Books, 365 Days. Book Thirty One – The Cambodian Book of the Dead by Tom Vater

Date started: August 4th

Date finished: August 9th

The front cover of The Cambodian Book of the Dead, aside from sporting a rather lovely skull and spider emblazoned with a Swastika, promised a “Detective Maier mystery”. It just so happened I was shopping around for a good crime thriller at the time. What I got was not what I expected.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead is, as advertised, set in Cambodia. Maier is a former war correspondent turned private detective, sent into the country of Cambodia to find Rolf, the heir to a large German coffee company, and return him to his mother in Germany. From this admittedly simple setup, the plot twists on nearly every other page, managing to encompass a shark eaten murder victim, a casino, a strange Russian, a prostitute who may be cursed, a sadistic Cambodian general and his son, and a Nazi war criminal called the White Spider. And that’s without getting into the spoilery stuff.

In case you can’t tell already, this book is a whole lot more than a simple “detective finds clues to solve a murder” story. While there is that aspect to it, it’s not really the focus of the story. The book itself is more about introducing us to the character of Maier himself. We’re introduced to him via a short prologue, where a friend was killed by a bomb intended for him. Somehow, things get worse for him after that. Seriously, there are things that happen to Maier over the course of this story that left me wondering why he didn’t just pack up and leave Cambodia. The end of the dedication promises he’ll return in another book soon. I’m not so sure, hasn’t the poor man suffered enough? I hope his next case is discovering what’s at the bottom of a long drink on a nice beach somewhere.

In all seriousness though, Maier did grow on me throughout. I was initially sceptical of him. He seemed a little stiff and formal, perhaps due to him very rarely using contractions in his speech. But as the book went on, I realised this was just part of who Maier is. As a war correspondent, it’s inferred he dealt with things most people couldn’t handle without shutting down altogether. And during the story, it’s apparent he continues to deal with this stuff in his career as a detective. It seems his formality is almost a defence mechanism, and I grew to admire and even like him for it.

Supporting cast aside (though they are mostly all well developed, especially the disturbing villains), the other main character is the country of Cambodia itself. I was floored at how much Tom Vater knows about Cambodia and its history. I admit, in the early parts of the novel, the first quarter or so, I was a little nervous as the action would stop sometimes for a little aside on this or that Khmer Rouge atrocity. But once the story properly got going, Cambodia’s rich (and violent) history was all tied in, along with the beliefs and superstitions of its people, and I was glad to have been given a bit of context upfront, rather than having to run to Wikipedia for help.

I was left astounded by The Cambodian Book of the Dead. It defied and often surpassed my expectations of the genre, and even though some parts were a bit rough around the edges, particularly in the early going, I’ll definitely be back for the next Detective Maier mystery. Even if I think he doesn’t deserve it.

Further adventures in mystery Book Reviews:

Joyland by Stephen King
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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