The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Tom Vater’s second crime novel, follows the rugged German private investigator Maier on a quest to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire, hidden in the labyrinthine anarchy of Phnom Penh.
Published in June on Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong-based fiction imprint co-founded by Vater, the author is currently planning a new Maier novel set in Laos. Crime Wave is now gearing up for the launch of its third title, Dead Sea, a thriller set in the Philippines which will be launched at Bali’s UBUD Writers and Readers Festival in October.
What inspired The Cambodian book of the Dead?
After India, Cambodia was the second country I really fell in love with. I have worked in Cambodia since 2001, conducted many interviews, wrote the screenplay to a TV documentary about the future of
Angkor, published several Cambodia guidebooks, been to all corners of the kingdom and witnessed some incredible events. At the coronation of King Sihamoni, I was in the same room as all the main political players in the country – from former monarch Norodom Sihanouk to Prime Minister Hun Sen, former Funcinpec boss Prince Ranariddh to Sam Rainsy, Chea Sim and many others.
Furthermore, I wanted to create a German detective working in Asian settings, a different country for each case he takes. I know this part of the world best, so this lends the stories authenticity. Cambodia is a great start to tell a dark tale featuring a somewhat cynical and lived-in PI. The next Maier novel takes place in Lao.
What made you feel so strongly about Cambodia?
The first time I visited Cambodia was in 1995 – as a traveller, not a journalist. I crossed the Thai-Cambodian border at Hat Lek without my passport and took a boat into Koh Kong. My companions were a man with a suitcase chained to his wrist and a taxi girl on her way home from Pattaya. It was during the monsoon and it rained and the sky was gun metal grey. We went up the Koh Kong River with the Khmer Rouge dug in on one side and government troops on the other. Since then I have written countless stories about the country. As with India, I had a kind of epiphany – the energy of both countries, though so very different, appealed to me greatly.
In your story you bring up the memories of two genocides – what role does war play in your work?
The only time I have experienced conflict has been by choice as a journalist. In The Cambodian Book of the Dead, I stand the two genocides – Germany and Cambodia - next to each other and look at them.
It’s something that isn’t done in either country, though for very different reasons. I guess I am informed by the fact that I was born in Germany in the 1960s and the Second World War was always present. I encountered occasional racism when I lived abroad because of my nationality, so that also forms my opinions on German history. When I started working in Cambodia, the war had just ended and the
traces of the genocide were everywhere. It seemed obvious to look at one in the context of the other.
How much of Tom Vater is in your novel’s hero Detective Maier?
Maier is an action hero, I am not and although I have been in some dangerous situations, I no longer go looking for them. He is also a very dark character – while he does have a sense of justice, he often lacks empathy towards himself. He drinks vodka orange and I am not much of a drinker. I simply felt that the time was right to put a German protagonist into an English language crime novel.
What made you decide it was time for crime novels set in the region?
I wrote my first crime novel in the 90s. It’s why I became a writer in the first place. But because of other opportunities and the need to make a living, I became a feature writer, guidebook writer, then screenplay writer, non-fiction writer and only now, almost 20 years later, have I managed to really commit myself to crime fiction again.
Who do you write for?
I think of The Cambodian Book of the Dead as a kind of historical novel, but of course the title is very much of the hardboiled detective genre. So I hope that crime fiction readers like the book as well as people interested in Southeast Asia, and in this particular book, also recent German history.
What makes fiction better than non-fiction?
That’s just a question of perception. I enjoy writing both. The advantage with fiction is that sometimes you can be more truthful.
Crime Wave Press is currently looking for original crime fiction manuscripts and new authors.More details can be found at crimewavepress.com