Tom Vater – The Cambodian Book of the Dead – A Detective Maier Mystery
Published by Exhibit A in July 2013
It’s been a long, fascinating and twisted journey to the publication of The Cambodian Book of the Dead. So I best start at the very beginning.
I grew up in a bookish family in southern Germany. My parents were English teachers so I had an anglophile upbringing. I first visited the UK in 1972, aged five. The incredible pop culture, a multi-cultural London and the bad food left lasting impressions. Back home I learned English from American soldiers. As soon as I turned 18, I was back in the UK and studied Publishing and English Lit. in Oxford. In my spare time I read the Beats, vociferously – Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Harry Crews – and some of the crime greats – Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith. I listened to the Stooges and the MC5, the Stones, Captain Beefheart, CAN and Sun Ra.
In 1993, I traveled to India. Landing in Delhi proved to be an epiphany, an Alice in Wonderland experience. There seemed to be no one in charge. I was instantly hooked on Asia and soon returned with a small grant from the British Library to record the music of indigenous people. I spent the next three years in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Iran, Laos, Thailand and the Philippines, documenting the strangest sounds I could find. I started writing about the musicians I met. I lived on 4000$ a year. I saw some strange shit.
In Kathmandu, I stayed next door to two cyclists who were writing about their journey from Lisbon. Their English wasn’t great and they asked me to accompany them to one of the local newspapers to help them edit their stories. I did. The editor gave them some money. I asked him whether he would give me money if I gave him a good story. Two weeks later I had a full page about Nepali music in the paper’s weekend supplement. That’s how I became a writer.
From Nepal, I traveled overland to the UK. On the way, somewhere between the Khyber Pass and the Iranian border I started writing fiction, the opening chapters of what would become my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu.
I was determined to write another novel, but I also had a fever for feature stories, the grittier the better. I covered Nepal’s civil war and India’s sex industry, the world’s largest gathering of people, also in India, as well as Cambodia’s appalling politics and Thailand’s tourism excesses. I co-wrote the screenplay to The Most Secret Place on Earth, an acclaimed feature documentary about the CIA’s largest ever covert action in 1960s Laos. With my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, I produced the hugely popular Sacred Skin, the first English language book on Thailand’s spirit tattoos. Somewhere amongst all this drama, the idea of a new fictional protagonist, a German Detective and former war correspondent, was born.
I first visited Cambodia briefly and recklessly in 1995 during the country’s civil war. I slipped across the border from Thailand, without visa or passport, and raced up the Ko Kong River in a speed boat, accompanied by a man with a suitcase chained to his wrist and a taxi girl on her way home. I had a second epiphany and fell in love with the place. A few years later I was back, for the Angkor temples, the amazing gun metal skies, the funky people and burnt landscapes, the country’s crazy and dark history and its uncertain future – the small Southeast Asian kingdom really got under my skin.
I wrote documentary screenplays, guidebooks and articles about Cambodia, but all that stopped short of describing what I really saw there. I wanted to tell stories that were too far out, and perhaps too close to the truth, to be featured in the media I was working for. So I locked myself in a hut on the Cambodian coast and wrote the first draft of The Cambodian Book of the Dead.
I set off from a spark I’d had about a Cambodian girl who gets killed in a road accident by a foreign tourist. Neither the tourist nor the girl were what they seemed and the story soon led down into the country’s darkest historical recesses. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia took place between 1975 and 1979. The complete breakdown of everything we know as society was still palpable when I first visited the country and it made me think often about German history.
But how to put German history into a crime fiction set in Cambodia? I had read Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Robert Wilson’s Portuguese set fiction, and I was a fan of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris.
Then I met a Khmer Rouge camera man who told me that Europeans had been present at many Khmer Rouge leadership meetings, all through the years of mass murder. I found out that several foreign embassies in Cambodia had stayed open during the Khmer Rouge period. The idea that a Nazi had crossed over to Tito’s partisans at the end of World War II and ended up as a diplomat in the Yugoslav embassy in Phnom Penh in the mid-70s did not seemed too far-fetched. I created the White Spider, the nemesis of my detective.
I called my detective Maier, a common and ordinary name in Germany, for an extraordinary man. The name is also a nod to John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee whose sidekick is called Meyer.
Maier is a former East German journalist who, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, becomes a war correspondent in the new Germany and after a near death experience in Cambodia, a detective. He’s a solitary man who drinks vodka orange, has a dislike for guns and cigarettes and lets his cases develop around him, slowly. I sent him to Cambodia in search of the wayward heir to a Hamburg coffee empire who, as I mentioned, had killed a local girl in a traffic accident. His search leads back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, the former Nazi who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungle. Soon Maier, captured and imprisoned, is forced to write the biography of the White Spider, a tale of mass murder that reaches from the Cambodian Killing Fields back to Europe’s concentration camps – or die.
In 2012, publisher Hans Kemp and I founded Crime Wave Press (www.crimewavepress.com), a Hong Kong based English language crime fiction imprint. Our first title, my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, was picked up by a Spanish publisher and is in print in both English and Spanish.
Our second title, The Cambodian Book of the Dead was snapped up by Emlyn Rees, commissioning editor at brand new and exciting UK crime fiction imprint Exhibit A, and I signed up for a sequel. I’m about to wrap up the second Detective Maier Mystery The Man with the Golden Mind, which takes my investigator to Laos and back in time to the country’s CIA financed secret war in the 1960s.
My fiction is informed by the many years I spent on the road in Asia, Europe and the US and I find it difficult to set scenes in locations I have never been to. Like a crow I pick bits of life and death from real places and people for my characters. On my journeys, I joined sea gypsies and nomads, pilgrims, serial killers, rebels and soldiers, war lords, pirates and sex workers, hippies, secret agents, drug dealers and dope fiends, police men, prophets, rock stars, artists, film makers and fellow writers. All of them serve as a sheer bottomless collective of human experience, degradation and triumph to provide material for my novels. A few of those remarkable people have become friends.
I hope that Detective Maier and his journeys into troubled places will find a large readership so that I can continue to exploit the bag of road side experiences I have been filling in the past two decades. Maier is quite unlike his creator, he’s less pro-active and better looking, more analytical and more modest, considering what he has to go through to get what he wants. We both share the transnational way of life and the ability to live a story. While you’re reading this, I will be out there somewhere, sitting hunched over a keyboard, suddenly looking up from Maier’s affairs and catching the last rays of the sun as they bounce off a temple roof, a mountain peak, a skyscraper or the satellite dish on a wooden shack, before I wrap up today’s thousand words and disappear into the Asian night.
That’s my story.
Maier’s story is for everyone.
Everyone over eighteen, that is.
My thanks to Tom for dropping by.
You can catch him at all of the following places whilst you eagerly await the book.
Read his blog at www.tomvater.com
Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tomvater
Sample Asia’s new crime fiction imprint at www.crimewavepress.com
Take a peek at his most recent illustrated bestseller at www.sacredskinthailand.com
Check out his occasional thoughts on Noir, Hardboiled and Pulp at http://thedevilsroad.com