Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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The Monsoon Ghost Image reviewed at Crime Segments

“I’d read anything written by Tom Vater — his mind works in strange and mysterious ways, a quality I genuinely appreciate in the crime fiction universe”

Latest, very kind review of The Monsoon Ghost Image by Nancy O at Crime Segments.

My first experience with this small indie press was, coincidentally, a book by the author of the book featured in today’s post, Tom Vater.  The title was The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu,  and it was a hell of a story that I remember not wanting to put down, so naturally I said yes when asked if I’d consider reading another one by the same writer.   This time around the action takes place in Thailand, and The Monsoon Ghost Image is the end of a trio of books featuring Detective Maier after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind.   

Former war correspondent, after years in the field and the death of a friend from Cambodia, Maier no longer wants nothing at all to do with war.  He now (2002) works  in “Hamburg’s most prestigious detective agency,”and as the story begins, his boss Sundermann hands him a strange case.  It seems that he has had a call from an Emilie Ritter, a woman whose famous photo journalist husband Martin Ritter is missing, presumed dead, with a funeral scheduled for the following Tuesday in Berlin.  Maier knows this already, but he gets a gut punch when Sundermann reveals that Ritter was seen in Bangkok just a couple of days earlier.  Emilie shows Maier and his partner Mikhail an email from someone with the enigmatic name of the “Wicked Witch of the East” confirming that Ritter is not only still alive, but is also “involved in the crime of the century.”  Emilie needs to know whether Ritter is dead or alive, so Maier and Mikhail are off to Thailand to try and track him down.  They’re there a month with no sign either way, the calm before the storm after which all hell breaks loose, centering around “the world’s most wanted photograph, the 21st century’s Zapruder document.”

As with most thriller novels, while reading The Monsoon Ghost Image  on one level I’d advise a complete suspension of disbelief, as the story explodes into seriously crazy, over-the-top territory.  Our detective friends find themselves caught up in some of the most bizarre situations imaginable (and I’m not joking here).  The story outdarks dark  — there are at least two psychopaths whose actions will likely keep readers on the edges of their chairs, and knowing who to trust becomes downright impossible through the many twists and turns taken by this story.   Having said that, let me also say that underneath this craziness runs an undeniable grain of truth — in the war on terror, there are certain agencies that will go to any lengths to get results, all “authorized at the highest levels of the world’s most open and egalitarian society.”  In the process, sometimes the line between good guys and bad guys becomes unrecognizable, and things get worse as they attempt a cover up in an effort to ensure that  their dirty secrets will never be revealed. And then, of course, there are others who just want to exploit those secrets for their own gain — in short, as someone notes in this book,  “it’s about money.”

I am not normally a reader of thrillers, and while this one is, as I said, way over the top, I actually got caught up in it because I had to know what happened next.  Each time I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did, and it was a hair-raising ride to the finish.  It is not at all for the squeamish (I found myself reading quickly through some of the many gruesome scenes, the equivalent of covering my eyes while watching the same on television), and it is not for people who freak out over the use of profanity or violence.  In the end though, what made this book work well for me was a) the focus on that underlying grain of truth mentioned above combined with the author’s out-there imagination  in telling that story (!)   and b) the author’s depiction of Maier as a man who through it all tries to retain his humanity while others lose theirs by the wayside.  Throw in the exotic locations throughout Thailand and well, it becomes the stuff of a tv miniseries I would definitely watch.

Read the full review here.

A Prison Encounter With Charles Sobhraj, Asia’s Most Infamous Serial Killer: CriMemoir by Tom Vater

This is my first-person account of interviewing serial killer Charles Sobhraj in prison in Kathmandu in 2003.

Indian parents tell their children that Charles Sobhraj will come and eat them if they are naughty. That’s what crossed my mind as I walked with Canadian photographer and documentary film maker Steve Sandford through the gate of Kathmandu prison – which looked like a Spaghetti western film set, much like its watch towers and armed guards – into the visitors’ area, a long narrow room, split in half by a low wall and strong chicken wire that reached up to the ceiling. Visitors had to sit down on stone benches. To our left and right families were shouting across the low wall, through the chicken wire to their incarcerated relatives. This was Christmas 2003 and we were here to interview a man infamous and feared across a continent. Charles Sobhraj, one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, was awaiting trialin Nepal and had agreed to grant us an interview. So had the prison authorities. Charles Sobhraj spent more than twenty years on the road across Asia befriending backpackers, drugs-smugglers, diplomats and businessmen, then drugging, robbing and finally strangling or burning his acquaintances. He is said to have killed between twelve and twenty times.

Read the full story at Hardboiled Wonderland.

Interviewed by Debbi Mack

I was interviewed by New York Times best selling author Debbie Mack the other day about my latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, my publishing house Crime Wave Press and the eternal Travis McGee.

Debbi: [00:01:03]  So my assumption is that you started with journalism and went into crime writing. Would that be correct?

Tom: [00:01:14] Well, actually it sort of happened hand-in-hand, because the first article I ever wrote for a newspaper was in 1997 for a paper in Nepal. And while I was there I started thinking about writing my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, which then eventually came out in 2004. So it it kind of happened at the same time. But I would say that you know between the pieces of fiction I write there are long gaps for professional reasons. And so most of the time I have a day job. I do journalism and when I have some months off and I can sit down and write a novel.

Debbi: [00:02:02] So you’re primarily a journalist who also does crime writing?

Tom: [00:02:07] Yeah, you could say that. I also own a small publishing house Crime Wave Press, which is a crime fiction imprint based in Hong Kong which does mostly e-books and we’ve published about 32 titles by all sorts of authors, many of them from the US. So that’s my other gig. So I kind of do three different things I’m a crime fiction writer, I’m a very small press publisher with have just one partner, and I’ve written four crime fiction novels and a bunch of short stories.

You can listen to or read the full interview here.

India’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ faces winds of change in The Nikkei Review

Tourism and climate change threaten way of life in scenic Himalayan valley.

Laure Siegel and I report from Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, the Middle Kingdom, a remote valley between Tibet and the rest of India.

KAZA, India — “There are more cars than potatoes now” sighs Chhering Angrup, slowly turning a prayer wheel below a framed portrait of the Dalai-Lama at his home in Kaza, the main town of the Spiti valley.

Now in his late 70s, the stocky, leather-skinned Angrup was born in Tashigang, a hamlet 20 km above Kaza, when the British ruled Spiti, a high-altitude desert in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Sandwiched between Tibet and the rest of India, and surrounded by the Himalayas, the valley was isolated for centuries, inaccessible except by foot. But times are changing fast as telecommunications, roads, tourism and climate change transform relations with the outside world, tempting young people to leave and threatening the future of the area’s distinctive way of life….

Full story here.

Interview at Books Can Be Deadly

I am interviewed about my latest fiction, The Monsoon Ghost Image at Books Can Be Deadly.

Did you like crime fiction when you were growing up?

Yes, I read crime novels from a young age, starting with the classics like Arthur Conan Doyle and pulps like Edgar Wallace.

What was the first story in that genre that you wrote?

The first story I wrote in the crime fiction novel was my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, published in 2005 and still in print with Crime Wave Press and in a Spanish translation.

What is your favorite part of writing in this genre?

I guess crime fiction, especially Noir fiction, lends itself to explore the darker side of ourselves.

What do you find most difficult about writing in this genre?

Finding an idea good and durable enough to invest six months into.

Is there an author in this genre that you admire most?

Countless authors – David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Ross McDonald are amongst my faves.

What is up next for you?

I have just published my fourth novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, with Crime Wave Press. One of my short stories, “To Kill an Arab”, will be out in an American published anthology soon.

Do you have anything to add?

The crime fiction market is flooded with cozies and Lee Child-type adventures. I’d like to see more mysteries anchored in the real world, warts and all.

Interview by Reading Nook

I ‘ve been interviewed at Reading Nook about my recent literary shenanigans and get another chance to talk about my new novel The Monsoon Ghost Image.

The Detective Maier Mystery Series – at Amazon for 10US$

All three Detective Maier novels, including my brand new title, The Monsoon Ghost Image, are available from Crime Wave Press via Amazon in one handy The Detective Maier Mystery Series package for less than 10US$.

First Amazon review of The Monsoon Ghost Image

Fellow author Janet Brown has posted a fantastic and very thorough review of The Monsoon Ghost Image on Amazon.

E book copies are US$3.99 at the moment.

It’s not easy to find a true noir detective in fiction these days, probably because as the German gumshoe Maier decides in The Monsoon Ghost Image, “Why solve a crime when everything he read about was criminal?” Maier, as was clearly shown in the first two novels in his trilogy, is no starry-eyed idealist about life and crime but the state of the post-9/11 world has him living in a bottle of Orange Campari, drinking crushed insects and waking up to a life “dulled by booze, self-inflicted monotony, and isolation.” “He could no longer remember a world that was reasonably safe.” Still he remains part of a family of investigators and when called by the man whom he works for and respects, he responds.

A man who has become one of Germany’s national heroes, a photographer who has risked his life over and over to show the world the face of war, is presumed dead after his boat is blown to smithereens off the coast of Thailand. His widow, however, has reason to doubt that the funeral she presides over is a valid one, and she wants to tell Maier what those reasons are. And suddenly readers are in a world invented by Raymond Chandler, where the hardened detective faces a beautiful woman who “carried herself like someone who swam a mile a day. Every day.” Behind Emilie Ritter’s black veil is a face that has tempted Maier for years. When she shows him an email from “the Wicked Witch” who assures her that Martin Ritter is alive and well in Bangkok, “involved in the crime of the century,” Maier takes the case, even though his instincts tell him he’s walking into a trap. Accompanied by Mikhail, a deadly gay giant with the “air of an eastern Mike Tyson who read Bulgakow on Quaaludes, 150 kilos of Russian super power,” he goes off to the city of Fellinis, those “holiday psychos who arrived in their thousands every day” to throng the streets of Thailand’s capital city.

Maier becomes immersed in “downtown Bangkok, where there was nothing to look at but plenty to see.” Here he encounters a “man who could charm a snail onto a razorblade,” a transgender woman who “had invested thousands of dollars to look like a million,” and “the kind of guy who would chew through his own arm for his master,” in a city where “it was both unfashionable and dangerous to think about the bigger picture.” It’s all comfortably noir until it becomes unimaginably evil on a global scale. Martin Ritter is indeed alive, documenting atrocities at the front line of the War on Terror, and he’s made the ill-advised mistake of trying to profit from his new line of work.

Tom Vater is a journalist who has practiced his craft in Southeast Asia for decades. He knows the territory better than most writers and has the talent to make it thrilling in a literary fashion. In The Monsoon Ghost Image, he uses that knowledge and talent to construct a world where “truth is just another story,” where government agents do “wet work” in rooms that are located in “an ocean of darkness far below somewhere, populated by the truly cursed,” where they operate so far beneath ideas of soundness that even the devil squealed in discomfort at the thought of this submersion.”

Buttressing this story of the woman whose brutal beauty “had a price but was not for sale,” the insane billionaire who “dripped vanity the way others drip sweat” and “every time he moved, needed to reconfirm his own brilliance,” Martin Ritter who had “crossed the line and cashed out,” the plastic surgeon whose inhuman art was hitherto undreamed of even by the Marquis de Sade, is the farthest circle of hell, “a Western nation letting go of so much – dignity, pride, aspiration, perhaps even hope,” to practice evil in the realm of “instutionalized brutality.”

Yes. The Monsoon Ghost Image is classic noir. Readers will race through it, entranced by the Dickensian cast of characters in Thailand’s bars and on its beaches, all rendered with piercing and often very funny accuracy; cheering for Maier and Mikhail as they try to escape an island that is a wild game park and the hunters who hope to bag human trophies; and recoiling from a hellish doctor who redefines evil and seems to possess the secret of eternal life. There are striking descriptions that are as funny as they are accurate: “The Thais welcomed [sex tourists] the way Europeans welcomed Santa Claus, like an old, rather distant friend who came to play and left presents,” Poet’s Night in “ a bar that sold a vibe that no longer existed, to people who were no longer quite there,” “a great place to stare into the void and contemplate the injustice of your existence with a beer in your hand,” Western ravers on their way to the Full Moon Party, ignoring their surroundings, ” more comfortable with itself, admiring each other’s tattoos, reveling in a shared tribal experience that encompassed doubtful fashions and earnest discussions on how to save money on the road.” Vater’s classic noir vernacular is as assured as Dashiell Hammett’s ever was and connoisseurs of the genre will savor gems like “the tattoos on her face told disturbing stories from the edge. Maybelle had let go of a thing or two,” “Like an old-hand chess player she was always a few moves ahead,” and “Civilization’s just a haircut. People are extreme. Always have been.”

But when readers finish this book, none of us will be able to say, just as Maier no longer can, “We are not killers, Mikhail.” We’ve all been laid low by “the perfect 21st Century weapon,” shattered by reading “It’s radical stuff… when you think of what we really need to do when we face evil. We have to become evil. We have to embrace evil.” And if only by our tacit silence, we all have.

Men Reading Books review The Monsoon Ghost Image

Men Reading Books found my just published novel The Monsoon Ghost Image a little disturbing…

The Monsoon Ghost Image by Tom Vater is a very dark murder mystery which takes place in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Cambodia. The book starts in late 2002, and the course of the story covers about six months. One key figure are Martin Ritter who fakes his death at the outset even though that resulted in the death of the other half-dozen people on his sailboat, which was located in the Andaman Sea off Thailand. Those deaths are only the beginning – lots of people are killed in the course of this story. After having his appearance altered by a psychopathic plastic surgeon, Dr. Suriporn, Ritter thought he was safe, but then he was still recognized, so the chase was on to find him. Another character was Fred Maier, a drunken German detective, felt like his life was no longer worth living and he descended into a severe alcoholic state in an attempt to flee the worsening world that he perceived.

The author set the stage for the dismal state of the world when he wrote, “A clear demarcation line had been drawn in the collective narrative of the brotherhood of man. People weren’t arguing about issues anymore. People were arguing about what had happened and what was happening. People were arguing about the course history had taken and was taking, about who was writing it up and how it was being broadcast and consumed, and they no longer agreed on the broad strokes. The truth was becoming just another story. For better or for worse, every certainty was fragmenting.”

You can get the ebook edition of the third Detective Maier Mystery,  The Monsoon Ghost Image, here. Print will be available in December.


Talking about writing at My Book Place

I was interviewed at My Book Place a while ago about all things bookish….

What is your favorite book of all time?
Hard to say, so many – Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, the Chandler novels, Treasure Island by Stevenson, Burmese Days by George Orwell, The Quiet American by Graham Greene, Killing Mr Watson by Peter Matthiessen, Shoot The Piano Player by David Goodis, Death’s Dark Abyss by Massimo Carlotto, Riding Shotgun And Other American Cruelties by Andy Rausch,
a German children’s novel called Krabat by Otfried Preußler and so on…

Read the full interview here if you dare…