I’ve been meaning to read Tom Vator’s debut novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead for a while now. I’m glad I finally got around to doing the task, because it’s one hell of a ride. Amusing, horrifying, at times frustrating, always perceptive.
The Cambodian Book of the Dead is not for everyone. I was probably predisposed to the book before I’d read the first page, because of my fondness for crime fiction set in Asia generally and Cambodia in particular, a country I’ve spent a lot of time in and the setting of my own debut crime novel, Ghost Money.
As far as I could tell, The Cambodian Book of the Dead takes place in the early part of last decade. The Khmer Rouge insurgency is over. Pol Pot is dead, murdered by his own lieutenants in one last bout of bloodletting. Cambodia hovers between the civil war wracked basket case it was in the nineties and the must-see tourist destination it is now. Investment is starting to flow in, but things are slow. The ruling elite is still in the early stages of organising the wholesale plunder of the country they are carrying out today.
Maier is the Asia specialist for a top flight German private investigations firm, before that an international correspondent. He’s done his share of time in war zones, including Cambodia in the nineties, when a Khmer Rouge bomb killed his Cambodian fixer and friend and sent him packing from the country as fast as his legs could carry him.
Now he’s back, hired by the owner of a Hamburg coffee empire to retrieve her son, Rolf, living in Kep, a small town on the southern coast of Cambodia, where he runs a dive shop with his white trash English partner.
It’s a tremendous setting for a crime novel. Kep was a high-roller resort town in the sixties. King Sihanouk had a small palace here and the story goes that whenever he was in residence, he had white sand shipped in from nearby Sihanoukville to beautify Kep’s naturally brownish beach. I last visited the town in 2008 and all that remained were the ghostly villas, dozens of them, some of which date back to the French colonial period in the early twentieth century. All are gutted, either destroyed by the Khmer Rouge or ransacked by the locals for building materials. Overgrown with weeds and bushes, walls are pock marked with bullet holes or covered in graffiti.
The first third of the The Cambodian Book of the Dead is slow, Maier reacquainting himself Cambodia, his former lover, a New Zealand journalist called Carrisa, and immersing himself in Kep’s expatriate scene. Anyone who has spent time in a place like Cambodia will instantly recognise this group of foreigners: fugitives, scammers and drops outs, drawn like flies on shit to the place’s cheap living, drugs and sex. Everyone is messed up. Everyone harbours secrets, most of which appear to lead to Bokor Hill Station, a real life former French colonial retreat with a genuinely eerie abandoned hotel and casino complex in the middle of a stunning national forest.
Maier seems content to wallow in all this until a Cambodian man, an employee at a local orphanage, turns up dead in the middle of the ocean, his feet weighted with concrete. Then everything quickly goes from slow burn weird to Heart of Darkness surreal, very quickly.
There’s Rolf’s beautiful Cambodian girlfriend, who may or may not be possessed by a powerful spirit, a murderous former general who wants to build a gold course near Boker, and a malevolent Russian recluse living in the jungle. What is Project Kangaok Meas and who is the secretive individual known as the White Spider? There’s also a sub-plot involving a Cambodian woman, now living in Germany, intent on travelling back to the country of her birth to search for her lost sister and inflict murderous avenge on someone, it’s not clear who.
Vator throws into the mix the full litany of Cambodia’s past and present horrors, everything from child sex abuse to land grabbing. The sheer depth of human horrors plumbed in The Cambodian Book of the Dead would at times feel like farce, were it not for the fact that most of what Vator describes is the stone cold truth.
The Cambodian Book of the Dead is a hardboiled crime story wrapped in a surreal meditation on genocide, globalisation and the expatriate condition, by a writer who has acute observations to make on all three subjects. The book also contains the most persuasive cure for writers block I can remember reading.
Vator’s writing is fluid and fast paced, occasionally a little too fast paced. The rapid fire plot plus the some times bizarre nature of the subject matter, means the book is sometimes a little confusing and hard to gets to grips with.
But it is also a fitting way to deal with the horrific events that have taken place in Cambodia, not just under the Khmer Rouge, events for which there are no easy explanations.
It’s a genuinely interesting read about a part of the world crime fiction doesn’t pay enough attention to.