Review: The Man with the Golden Mind, by Tom Vater

Rating: 5 out of 5.


This is the second of a series of detective novels – I previously reviewed the first book, The Cambodian Book of the Dead – but each of the books can be read as a standalone.

The Man with the Golden Mind masquerades as a spy thriller, but that’s just its cover (in both senses of the word) so that real readers (not just old spiders like me) will feel OK buying it.  So please do. If you like spy thrillers then I promise you’ll like it. 

Our hero, Maier, is a private investigator trying to track down the story of a man murdered decades back, in Laos, in the midst of a secret war.  Out there he gets tangled up in a lot of dodgy dealings and local internecine conflicts and buried gold and buried secrets.  Plenty of sex and fights and murders and all that spy-novel, James-Bond-derring-do. The characters are sharp, the plotting is intricate.  It’s not going to let you down if that’s what you like. 

You might also like it differently though.  Packed beneath its thin cover it’s an onion of a book, layer upon layer.  It’s a book, as it seems to me, about missing people.  Every layer is another missing person – the father of his client first.  Then his client.  Then a long-missing spy.   The missing history of a load of other spies.  A whole tribe of sons and fathers missing in a jungle.  Keep peeling.  There’s the protagonist’s father, lost to him since forever.  The boyfriend of a girl he meets. The girl herself. Not just where are – or were – these missing people, but who are they?  The gaps that they leave behind them are all our hero has to go on.

The story is set in Laos, where, in the nineteen-fifties to seventies, the Americans fought a secret war in parallel with the war in Vietnam, covertly bombing much of the country back into the stone age in an effort to prevent it being used as a resource by the North Vietnamese.  The losses from that secret war, funded and driven by the CIA, went uncounted, uncountable.  Rural villagers, farmers, civilians of all kinds, uninvolved in any matter of concern to the USA, as well as those directly involved in the conflict on both sides. Those are the missing people whose absence drives the deeper plot of this book.

Was it because these people haunt a country that he loves that Vater wrote it this way? Or was it something else?

Vater knows his stuff.  He doesn’t thrust the politics down your throat, but all of that is there in the book if you are interested. He also knows the terrain – he has a travel-writer’s talent for conveying place and moment and his writing is delicious. 

A slim book with a dark theme, that carries its weight lightly.

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