The Cambodian Book of The Dead

Written by Tom Vater — Maier is a German war correspondent turned private detective. His agency sends him on what he assumes will be a tiresome but straightforward mission – to locate Rolf Muller-Overbeck, the errant heir to a Mannheim coffee manufacturing fortune, who has ‘gone native’ and is running a diving school in Cambodia. Maier has not been back to Phnom Penh since he narrowly avoided being killed by a rebel bomb while filing copy from the war zone during the final days of the Khmer Rouge.

He is reunited with his New Zealand ex-girlfriend Carisse, and while meeting Rolf’s English business partner, they witness a savage shooting in a bar, and are introduced to the ex Khmer Rouge General Tep, and his psychotic son. To find Rolf, Maier has to travel to the near-derelict former resort of Kep. Posing as a potential investor, he meets the beautiful but scarred Kaley, and after a diving trip with Rolf goes very badly wrong, he visits the crumbling, haunted former casino at Bokor, perched up in the mist of the mountain forests. While exploring the site, Maier witnesses something so bizarre and grisly that he doubts his own sense of reality. His grip on reason is not helped by the appearance of the obese Russian homosexual, Mikhail, who presides over the ruins like a grotesque tour-guide.

Back in Kep, Maier realises that his flimsy cover has been blown. Carisse has arrived from the city, sensing a story for her newspaper, but Maier has had to reveal the real purpose of his mission to Les ‘Snakearm’ Leroux, an American who fought across Indo-China in 1970s, and now runs The Last Filling Station, Kep’s main bar. By now, Maier has put himself seriously in harm’s way, and is at the mercy of General Tep, his band of dead-eyed female assassins, and a sinister ex-Nazi, The White Spider. Trying to maintain his sanity while drifting in and out of drug-induced comas, our hero is tasked with keeping himself and Carisse alive, Scheherezade like, by documenting The White Spider’s life story.

The writing is technicolour and lurid at almost every turn of the page, without ever quite descending into parody. The decaying wreckage of the French colonial past, and the grasping, all-consuming jungle are apt, if obvious, metaphors for the corruption, violence and vice which strangles a Cambodia struggling to leave behind its blood-soaked history. Death and degradation are never far away as Maier stumbles from one crisis to the next in his attempt to unravel the mystery of the alluring woman called Kaley, and the fatal spell she seems to weave over the decadent world of Kep and its inhabitants.

The narrative is fast-paced and the frequent action scenes are convincingly written. The smells and sounds of Cambodia are vividly brought to life, and aficionados of this kind of writing will love the book. I confess to being distracted by trying to work out the exact relationships between the female Cambodian characters, but perhaps this was an intentional enigma. Maier is a bold and brave hero, if rather improbably indestructible amidst the mayhem. However the real trouble is that neither Maier himself, nor the mysterious Kaley, nor even the voluptuous Carisse, totally engaged my sympathy and support for what they were up to.

Crime Wave Press
Kindle
£2.64

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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