THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD
By Tom Vater
Exhibit A Publications, June 25, 2013 (trade paperback, $14.99)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
The Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime wreaked destruction and genocide upon Cambodia. Entire social classes were wiped out, millions slaughtered in the Killing Fields, and the country is only now slowly beginning to regroup and emerge from the nightmare.
German private detective Maier was once a war correspondent in the Cambodian region but now he's returning on assignment to find the wayward son of a wealthy Hamburg widow, to persuade the young man into returning to Germany.
His seeming innocuous mission is soon compromised by unknown operatives, intent on preventing him from making any further inroads into the small community of thieves that seems to dominate neighborhoods in Cambodia where Meier is searching.
Mr. Vater brings an immense knowledge of the area to BOOK OF THE DEAD, Cambodian culture and history flavoring this exotic mystery thriller. The novel is packed with historic revelations about the Pol Pot era and its incredible damage to the populace, clearly visible even today. This terrible memory is blended inexorably with the deep and mystical ancient roots of Cambodian life. We are presented with scene after scene of the hidden threads of such cultural clashes, and how they resonate into the increasingly modern behavior of the Cambodian people today.
The narrative in BOOK OF THE DEAD is quite graphic and might be upsetting to some queasy readers. No punches are pulled here when describing the genocidal behavior of the Khmer Rouge, and this intensity is also reflected in the descriptions of Maier's current adventures. Maier is no saint and he fellow travels with none. So be prepared for a rough ride.
The story line is brisk and lively, and dialogue is realistic insofar as the story requires. I say this because there came a time at which I wondered whether Mr. Vater might be pulling our legs a bit, albeit artfully. Much of the story might fit comfortably within an R-rated 007-type spoof, with its characters and incidents bordering (okay, firmly stepping into) parody territory.
How so? Well, you've got an impromptu scuba dive in sharky waters, murder by shark, random glossy Asian women popping up with alarming regularity for sexual encounters, lots of unconscious-knocking perpetrated upon protagonists, drugs of all sorts (much of it administered via threatening syringe from nasty tweener Pol Pot fangirls), some dismembering, torture, prison cells of several variety, numerous harrowing escapes, a karaoke bar, some more torture (in addition to the karaoke), mixed bags of expatriate Americans and Brits, a casino which is supposed to be a profitable hotspot but is essentially deserted, a mystical ceremony featuring a blood ritual that strangely remains vaguely described, a Capone-ish bar shooting, possibly a ghost or two, lots of people jammed onto sputtering minibikes, some conveniently ancient temple ruins, plus scary spiders and other bad critters tossed into the stew, just for flavor.
And, oh yeah, a Nazi. You'd think that authentic WW-II Nazis are in short supply nowadays but one is apparently still lurking in rural Cambodia, just waiting to chuckle menacingly at German private detectives prior to torturing them with long lectures about why this is all happening. It's a tossup whether the boring Nazi musings are more painful than the eager needle-bearing tweener girls that soon follow.
This is however all great fun, and an engaging, entertaining read. Regardless of whether BOOK OF THE DEAD is meant to be serious or a heady parody, it's highly recommended to fans of the exotic and more venturesome adult-toned mystery thriller.
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