Review: The Cambodian Book of the Dead, by Tom Vater

Reviewed by De Gevallene, Janujary 2022

Rating: 5 out of 5.


In these Covid days, we barely travel any more. Perhaps if it stays this way the world will be a happier place. At least, if people would stay in their own country it would save a lot of trouble. This delicious book is full of those who didn’t. And of the trouble they got into.

  • The son of a wealthy german coffee empire who has somehow managed to go missing in Cambodia.
  • His mother, who certainly – as things turn out – shouldn’t have followed him there.
  • A detective who unwisely returned to the country, despite having plenty of reasons not to.
  • All too many disreputable ex-pats.
  • A Nazi, who ought to have stayed at home and let the Nuremberg Trials do their worst with him…

Tom Vater. like his detective, is a German who somehow cannot keep out of those far eastern countries to which Americans brought their godforsaken wars and left behind their legacy of suffering. His attachment to the region is clearly intense, despite the horrors and violence and corruption that hide within them – from none of which he flinches. The world which he brings so stunningly to life in this book is the ravaged country of the Khmer Rouge, and despite the formal rhetoric they haven’t gone away. Everyone is afraid. Violence is everywhere. But it is also a beautiful country, populated by three dimensional people with depth and history.

This isn’t the most remarkable of stories. It rambles a bit. The first half of the book is a little too slow and the second half is a little to packed with improbable action. I can forgive such grumbles – didn’t I relish every word of the beautifully written slow start to the book, and lose myself happily in the gathering change of pace as the book progressed? It has some slightly tired tropes – particularly the ruthless female trafficked girls who provide a rathy sexy army for the bad guy, and the predictable “you are about to be killed” (except the bad guy – as always – lingers a little too long and gets caught out). I can forgive this too, because some of the books conceits are lingering and haunting. I was fascinated by the subtext of the journalist-cum-detective trapped by a sadistic maniac and called upon to write his glorious biography. The surface of this episode called to mind the similarly ill-fated hero of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, although I also wondered, if I pushed it, if I might find beneath its surface some parable of the author’s own place – if not imprisoned by this region, at least captivated by it, a ex-patriot writer of clearly soaring talents, left to mine the cruel history of the place for thrilling and saleable narratives…..

He succeeds. I was thrilled. I bought the book and will buy the others too. They will while away the stagnant days of Covid very nicely. I don’t care what he writes really, because all of it is compelling. A travelogue, a political history, a rampant yarn. His gift for conveying place and history and politics is extraordinary. And its a perfectly serviceable detective thriller too.

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