Review: The Monsoon Ghost Image, by Tom Vater

Rating: 5 out of 5.


This is the third of a series of detective novels – I previously reviewed the first book,The Cambodian Book of the Dead, and the second one, The Man with the Golden Mindbut each of the books can be read as a standalone.

This is a book that is overflowing with the stickiest of pitch black stuff.  Sticky because although it’s a story, and a pretty far fetched one at that, the reality of the dark things fictionalised here is every bit as far fetched, and, being real, even more troubling. 

As in all of the Maier series, there’s plenty of James-Bondery here, with spy stuff, heroism, derring-do and action, but rather than reading like a James Bond thriller, this riveting read feels journalistic – even more so than in the other two books. What it’s talking about is real. Recent. And unresolved.  An international big business sex industry that corrupts and brutalizes its damaged workers and damaged clients. The cynical use of torture by state agencies (even the co-option and cultivation of a psychopath who relishes the work has plenty of real history precedents).  The silencing of political critics through intimidation, harassment, kidnapping, imprisonment and worse.  And although this is a book set exotically in Thailand, we’re not just talking distant states in the periphery of our vision: on the other side of all the exotic Asian scenery, that Vater always does so well, we’re talking about America.

Vater does not offer us a James Bond solution, where a dapper and unshakeable superhero can single-handedly outrun/outleap/outwit/outcharm the forces of state orchestrated evil; Vater’s characters are human, breakable, fallible. And state forces are entirely indifferent to them. You know, reading the book, that any triumphs by the good guys are temporary, contingent: the individual is weak and powerful states are ruthless.  There’s no grandiose victory, at best – because there’s always this expectation in fiction – one can hope for a clever escape to fight another fragile battle. 

But I knew from the start that this was the third – and on the law of three possibly the final – Maier story. No spoilers, my friends. But Vater can be ruthless too, so it became painfully clear as I read the latter part of the book, that I couldn’t really count on a happy ending.

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