Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Eclectic crime fiction and informed, irreverent non-fiction from Asia and beyond

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Scott Nicholson – The Man with the Golden Mind

My close friend, my favorite American, sometime photographer and fellow traveler, Scott Nicholson died a little over a year ago. (http://www.tomvater.com/u…/my-quiet-american-scott-nicholson).

About a decade ago, Scott and I and my then wife Aroon traveled through Laos together. One of the locations we visited was the Buddha Park near Vientiane, a neglected unruly collection of concrete sculptures in a dried-up garden areal on the banks of the Mekong twenty kilometers outside the capital Vientiane.

I used the spot as a location for a scene in my second Detective Maier novel, The Man with the Golden Mind, which was set in Laos among the detritus of the USA’s covert war in the country in the 1960s and 1970s.
The opening of the scene is pretty much how we experienced the moment:

Weltmeister and Maier left the car behind a shack by the side of the main road and walked through a dry rice paddy. The morning mist hung above the sluggish Mekong like a gray blanket. The water level was low. The monsoon floods had gone. The fields on the riverbanks were covered in dew. It was cold despite the first rays of milky sunlight that washed over the untainted landscape. Mornings in Asia had an ethereal quality. The crimes and defeats of the previous day had been forgotten. The hope for the coming day remained intact. Village girls wrapped in sarongs carried steel pots and bags of washing along the riverbank, giggling and shouting quietly as only girls in Laos would, their long raven-black hair trailing behind them, giving them the solidity of feys. A couple of buffaloes ambled across the fields on the opposite side, dark and solid shapes heading for the water’s edge. No traffic noise, no loudspeakers, nothing but bird calls and the laughter of the girls penetrated through the mist and lent the scenery a dignity that was unlikely to survive the day. Laos could be that way, timeless, unhurried, busy with a quiet sensuality that was all its own.
A huge bird-like creature loomed out of the mist. A fierce stone garuda, some fifteen meters high, its wings spread wide, stared at them with an expression of overbearing authority. Maier had never seen a statue so impatient.
Mikhail had suggested meeting away from the capital at Xieng Khouang, an otherworldly collection of gigantic religious sculptures, constructed in the late Fifties and located in an overgrown park. The eccentric founder of this sacred medway, a self-proclaimed yogi, had combined elements of Buddhism and Hinduism to forge his own popular cult. When the communists took over, the yogi escaped across the Mekong to build another Buddha park in Thailand. His sculptures, some of them twenty meters high, lingered as ghostly reminders of more magical times.

Even at the very first light of day, several old women had already lined up along the broken fence around the property, selling freshly steamed khao tom – sticky rice mixed with black beans and banana, wrapped in banana leaf. With toothless smiles and hopeful eyes, they told Maier that the two men were the first visitors this morning. They showed no surprise or interest in the heavy black canvas bag that the older man carried.
Maier pointed an imaginary camera at them and clicked off a couple of shots. The snack sellers laughed at his antics and settled back behind their produce.
The two men drifted into the park. They passed a giant reclining Buddha, a fierce Shiva, and a garish Rahu which sat amidst countless human and animal shapes that rose out of the knee-high grass. Skeletons danced and frogs cowered, warriors mauled mythical creatures, and ladies bowed their heads in prayer. It was easy to become disoriented amongst the sculptures; many were virtually identical. As the sun rose, the lingering fog sustained the labyrinthine ambience. They reached a bulging pumpkin-shaped edifice that rose from dry grass in the center of the park. Weltmeister and Maier entered through a circular doorway and ascended three levels of narrow, damp stairs to the top of the construct. From here they had a perfect view over most of the area.

Last week, I found myself back in Laos. With Scott in mind, a decade since my last visit, I returned to the Buddha Park – it’s been rehabilitated into a neatly laid out flower garden with stone pathways. One has to pay to get in. There are shops and a restaurant. There’s even a field of sunflowers and some plastic benches in the shapes of bunnies and baby chicken. The world has been a little more tamed since Scott and I dropped by. But the statues remain as eerie as ever. I didn’t offer prayers. Instead I shared a smoke with Charlie Paradis, the way I would have with Scott, and lingered among the stones, sad that one of the greatest people I’ve had the pleasure to have shared time with was not there with me, happy that we shared many life-affirming moments, from The Andaman Islands to Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, talking politics, RocknRoll and literature for almost twenty years.

The afternoon in the Buddha Park brought all this back to the forefront of my mind. Scott gave a lot without ever intruding on anything. He was a good listener. He had a far-away look in his eyes that I loved and connected with. He had a golden mind. I miss the conversations as well as the silence we shared. I like to think he is happy to have seen me return to one of our key moments, celebrating what we then gained, mourning what I have since lost.

The Monsoon Ghost Image reviewed at Categorically Well Read

Fantastic and exhaustive review of the third Detective Maier novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image at Categorically Well Read, published by Crime Wave Press:

I was curious as I read my way through this trilogy of thrillers why Vater decided to set them in 2001-2, the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With TMGI his choice becomes clear, as perhaps, it was always on his agenda to shine a harsh light on America throughout the trilogy and in particular through TMGI— the post 9/11 conduct of the CIA.

September 11, 2001 is a day that will always be burned into my memory from turning on the TV and watching live and in shock as the second plane flew into the second tower to the horror of realizing that the jet that flew so low over my house was the one that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania. It was a tragic and horrible day.

Disturbingly what has sprung from that infamous act of terrorism is an American response that ignited two wars: The conflict in the Middle East that continues to this day and the War on Terror that also continues to this day.

In the resultant scramble to find the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the “mythical” Weapons of Mass Destruction the American government sanctioned the CIA to use whatever means they saw fit to find justice for the American people.

The CIA saw fit to implement the practice of rendition, in other words— sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners.

Tom Vater through TMGI asks the question of how low did the CIA stoop to get answers about terrorism and those mythical weapons of mass destruction and how far were they willing to go to keep these tactics a secret?

The plot for TMGI is action packed, edge of your seat, violent, deranged, outrageous and disturbing. It, horrifically, is a pale shadow compared to the truth, a reality that is still as relevant today in 2020 as it was back in 2002.

Read the full review here.

Get your copy of The Monsoon Ghost Image here.

Buy all three Detective Maier novels for US$12.

A Year in the Life of a Destination Expert – The Daily Telegraph

There are more than 100 Telegraph Travel experts living in amazing destinations all over the world, from Argentina’s wild pampas to high-tech Tokyo. Our job? To experience everything we possibly can in our region, and share the very best. I did just that from Thailand.

Bangkok is the world’s most visited city for the fifth year running, and, though biased, having lived here for 15 years, I can understand its popularity. Besides the reliably excellent food, shopping marathons continue to be a major draw. The thousands of stalls at Chatuchak, offering everything from clothes to ceramics, remain a favourite weekend destination. 

The city’s biennale featured an appearance by Marina Abramovic and installations by Yayoi Kusama. I particularly liked Ralf Tooten’s giant photographs of construction workers, which adorned several buildings….

Read the full text here.

To Kill an Arab review

I liked this story because the characters were planned very well. I say this because they were both American and Arabic. It had an interesting perspective and used the Aramaic language to enhance reader identification. It was a spy story told from the other side of the coin. An interesting read.

Great review by Haley Belinda of To Kill an Arab, a short story recently published in the anthology A Time For Violence that also featured Max Collins, Joe Lansdale and Peter Leonard (son of Elmore). Published by Close to the Bone and edited by Chris Roy and Andy Rausch.

Brand new 18th edition of Reise Know How Thailand Handbuch out now!

The 18th edition of my bestselling Thailand Handbuch is out now with Reise Know How, more than a 1000 pages packed with information on travel in Thailand.

Co-authored, researched and updated with Rainer Krack.

Content:

Thailand ist seit Jahrzehnten eines der beliebtesten Reiseziele Asiens. Trotz Naturkatastrophen und politisch unruhigen Zeiten konnte das Land fast ständig wachsende Touristenzahlen verbuchen. Eigentlich kein Wunder, findet man doch in Thailand alles, was sich Globetrotter und Touristen nur wünschen können: zahllose herrliche Strände, grandios schöne Inseln, einsame Berglandschaften, romantische Flüsse, anmutige Tempel und dazu der unwiderstehliche Charme seiner Bewohner, deren angeborene Lebensfreude schnell auf die Besucher überspringt.

Dieser kompakte Reiseführer beschreibt alle interessanten Orte Thailands auch abseits der Hauptreiserouten und garantiert durch seinen Aufbau eine gute und rasche Orientierung. Jedes Kapitel beginnt mit einer Doppelseite, auf der die Inhalte mit einer Übersichtskarte der Region, Highlights und Seitenverweisen vorgestellt werden. Farblich auf die Kapitel abgestimmte Seitenzahlkästchen erleichtern die Orientierung im Buch. Eine verbesserte Kartengrafik trägt zusätzlich zur vereinfachten und gezielten Handhabung bei.

Natürlich enthält der Reiseführer die bewährten und praktischen Tipps zu Reisefragen von A-Z. Im erweiterten Vorspann finden sich Übersichtsseiten mit Beschreibungen aller Regionen, eine Jahresübersicht zu Festen und Veranstaltungen, Routenvorschläge und persönliche Top-Tipps des Autors. Viele spezielle Infos, beispielsweise zur Anreise, zu Verkehrsmitteln wie Tuk-Tuks und Aktivitäten wie Floßfahrten, Trekkingtouren und Ausflügen in Nationalparks, sind hilfreiche Planungshelfer. Ausführliche Exkurse zu Geschichte, Land und Leuten zeichnen diesen aktuellen Reiseführer ebenso aus wie eine kleine Sprachhilfe Thai.

The football match between the two most evil countries in the world – USA vs Iran 1998

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As the USA is threatening war with Iran again, I am republishing the only football story I´ve ever written.

Watching the World Cup Match between the USA and Iran in Esfahan in 1998, was one of the highlights of my time in Iran. The streets of this beautiful city were crammed with revelers, celebrating the victory of their team, as well as life and expression.

21 years later, the story reads a bit quaint. Times have changed – America is run by a serial liar fronting a far right government, isolating itself even as it continues to invest time, manpower and money into combating perceived foes, while Iran has opened considerably since my visit, signed a nuclear deal with the international community, keen to recover from years of crippling sanctions. Thanks to American lawlessness, the countries are on the brink of war again.

The magic energy of Esfahan in 1998 remains my fondest football memory.

Getting there is half the fun, they say.

That’s what I thought, when the fat cop with the stubble grabbed my nuts in his little roadside shack, a few miles across the Pakistan border into Iran, on the way to Zahedan.
‘You have any drugs? You smuggle anything?’ his stale breath is very close to my face.
Two shady Baluchi guys in flowing white Pakistani shirts and pants are lingering outside, revving the engine of their shit-sparking racer that has been our preferred mode of transport across Iran. The cop eventually lets go, frustrated that I did not try and shift a kilo of heroin from Pakistan into the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then he could have torn them off and the only one complaining would have been myself.
I was on my way to watch a football match between the two most evil countries in the world. Iran and the United States were, by chance, placed in the same group in the 1998 World Cup in France. I had decided to watch the match in Esfahan, Iran’s most beautiful city.

The game promised to have enormous political significance. US President Clinton and Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright both made fluffy statements about American ties with Iran improving, almost 20 years after the Islamic revolution had replaced the corrupt and murderous right-wing US-backed Shah with an orthodox Islamic state not known for being particularly enlightened either. Clinton had even gone so far as to say, that he hoped the match would help reach rapprochement between the two countries. Twenty-one years later and the Americans are rattling their depleted uranium sabers on Iran’s doorstep. But that’s another story.

Iran was an oppressive kind of place in 1998. On the road between Kerman and Bam, all public buses were stopped at roadblocks and passengers were forced to line up along the tarmac to have their bags, all neatly lined up in front of them, searched. At times, the police, thugs that they were, got angry for little reason and spilled the entire contents of people’s bags on the highway. The undersides of the buses were searched with mirrors. The authorities did not appear to be looking for anything in particular. It was that kind of place. Harassment stopped at once when foreigners had been spotted among the passengers.

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But the Iranians are great, hospitable people and the country as a whole seemed to be just as safe and open-minded than, say, the USA. In the cities at least, the religious pressure came from state organs, the secret Islamic police. No citizens advertised the merits of Islam while I slowly moved towards Esfahan. People wanted to talk football and tourism and how I could help them leave the country.

I spent the afternoon before the match on Esfahan’s Imam Square, in the shadow of some of Persia’s most beautiful mosques, playing football against the police. I had two soccer crazy Mexicans and a couple of decent Brits covering for my own ineptitude on the pitch. The police were already playing the international match in their heads – against us. It was rough. National honor was at stake on their side, two obsessed Mexicans on mine. I can’t remember who won. I guess the Iranian security forces must have clinched the game, because I do remember the second half being brutal and I got laid flat out a few times.
By late afternoon, the square, usually a popular picnic spots for thousands, lay deserted. Football fever was gripping even the last mullah on the pitch. Iran has some football history. The Persians reached their first FIFA World Cup as the sole representative from Asia at Argentina in 1978, when they drew Scotland 1-1 in between losses to finalists Holland and powerful Peru. Twenty years later they were back, facing the ‘Great Satan’ across the pitch in France. By early evening, I was slouching in a sofa in the lobby of an up-market hotel, hemmed in on both sides by the Mexicans, counting my police–induced bruises. Most of the hotel staff was crowded round the TV set an hour before the game had kicked off.
In fact, no one in Iran saw the kick-off, because Iran’s mullahs delayed the broadcast and edited scenes showing Iranian opponents in Lyon’s Stade Gerland. The political undertone of this match wasn’t lost on anyone. While many Iranians dislike their autocratic government, they love their countryand perceive the US as a meddling foe, irrespective of the home-grown propaganda that rains down on them day and night.
Things got off to a good start. Prior to kick-off, each Iranian player gave his counterpart on the American team a white flower and the teams joined for an uncustomary group photo. By the time the game kicked off on the TV in the hotel lobby in Esfahan, the streets of the city were utterly deserted and an eerie silence had descended over this desert metropolis. For the hotel staff it was a white-knuckle ride from minute one.
For everyone else it was an average game that felt a little like it had been rigged. Both teams played exceedingly fair – unlike my opponents during the police-tourist match in the afternoon, the pros went out of their respective ways to avoid any brutality. Iran claimed their first victory in a world cup by beating the USA 2 to 1.
As one commentator put it, ‘The USA failed to impress in all of their games finishing with three consecutive losses and a single goal.’
Needless to say, the historic win failed to substantially improve relations between the two countries, but it made Iran the only one of the four Asian sides at that tournament to win a match.

Twenty minutes after the game, the first vehicles started racing along the main. Car horns  howled past the hotel lobby. Flatbed trucks began to arrive in the town center, loaded with football fans. The atmosphere was electric and we made our way down to the river where thousands were celebrating victory. Girls were dancing in the street and on the back of the flat-beds. Men raced their bikes and wore ecstatic glazed expressions, despite the fact no one drank. Iranian flags flew high above the crowd and the security forces were out in force. But tonight they weren’t moving.
One fan told me, ‘This is the first time we have had a street party since 1979. It’s a great victory for us. But this is also a political demonstration. We are showing the government that we have power.’
The cops kept their distance until they spotted the foreigners. Us. One uniformed officer approached me and said, ‘We will take you to your hotel. This is for Iranians only. Foreigners cannot watch. You must stay in your hotel.’
We were marched back to our rooms across town, passing celebrations.
Today, Iran is still a country where guests are likely to be banned from street parties and where the mullahs rule. America is still a country bent on attacking an old foe. Should the US have a go, thousands of civilians will perish, as we have come to expect from the wars they inflict on the world – mothers will lose their children and children will lose their limbs and never play football. But then, Americans don’t really understand football much. While a third of the planet watches the Great Game, the US prefer to stick to the local version – American Football – a noisy spectacle whose players look like they are going into combat. Ah, it’s lonely at the top.

First published in Untamed Travel in 2002.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead reviewed at The Book Delight

The first Detective Maier novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, published by Crime Wave Press, has received another great review, from The Book Delight. Thanks a million.

The Characters: The novel is filled with a cast of characters that leap from the pages. Maier, the main character is well drawn, believable, and earns the reader’s sympathy straight off the mark. His cohorts range from a deeply flawed Khmer madman, women damaged by the very men who should have protected them, dissolute Europeans, and a colorful American, scarred by war and trapped in the past.  My favorite character by far was Cambodia itself. Moody, dark, strangely beautiful in all its death and decay; it’s as if Vater personified the place with his words. I felt myself swatting at mosquitoes and longing for a cold beer. I was both madly attracted to and repelled by his description of the country.   It’s clear that Mr. Vater has more than just a glancing knowledge of the place. I suspect he has Asia in his eyes. 

The History: I loved the historical aspect of this book. The story of Cambodia and its transformation from a post-colonial backwater to a broken land, strewn with land mines, a people damaged by war, death, and destruction at the hands of a madman run amok, is devastating. I saw the movie The Killing Fields, way back when and have not given the place much thought since. It’s always a pleasant surprise to read a book that not only entertains but leaves the reader with a new appreciation for the novel’s historical setting.

The Writing: Wow! Evocative, lyrical, grab you and suck you into the story, writing. I loved it. Highly descriptive, the narrative has a poetic feel to it. You can sense the humidity rising as you turn the page. Well edited and tightly paced, the story zips along, culminating in an explosive ending.

Read the full review at The Book Delight.

Buy The Cambodian Book of the Dead.

Buy the entire Detective Maier trilogy for a little more than ten bucks.

The Indo European Artists Residency Kolkata 2019

It’s been a blast. Kolkata is an incredible city, packed with history, nostalgia and desire. The 8 week residency gave me the opportunity to write a new series of crime novellas, all set in Kolkata of course, and stretching over a period of 60 years. I also found the time to explore Kolkata at night, particularly its eastern regions, far from them city centre. My exhibition, Destroy Everything Beautiful, shown alongside the work of fellow artists
Sophie Cousinié and Aditi Aggarwal, is the result of these explorations. Everyone I met along the way was gracious and generous.

For my final residency event, Laure Siegel tattooed the word NOIR onto my leg while I read my short story Three Eyes, Some Killings.

A big thanks to the Goethe Insititut/Max Mueller Bhavan, especially Sharmistha Shanker and Frieso Maecker. The crime novellas will be published as Kolkata Noir by Crime Wave Press next year.

I am also indebted to fellow writer Aurko Maitra who offered me access to some of the city’s least salubrious and most fascinating corners.

No doubt, I will be back. But more importantly, I will cherish the freedom and time the residency provided me, to engage with one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The Man with the Golden Mind reviewed at Categorically Well Read


The golden mind of Tom Vater speaks with an individual voice making his work to stand out from the often formulaic mass of recent detective writing. Tom Vater’s work is not for the faint of heart but is indeed reading time well spent.

Read the full review here.

Buy a copy of The Man with the Golden Mind. Out now with Crime Wave Press.

My Indo European Artist Residence 2019

My Indo-European Artitst Residency in Kolkata is wrapping up in a couple of weeks. Destroy Everything Beautiful – a series of photos I took during my meanderings through the city will be exhibited this week at Experimenter Gallery in Ballygunge.

I am giving a reading of the crime fiction – 2 novellas and a short story – I wrote in the past 7 weeks, on December 10th.

It’s been an incredible experience in an incredible city, thanks to Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata.

Places