Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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Politics and crime fiction

A short essay on politics and crime fiction, published at b for bookreview.

A while ago, I had a conversation with an American book reviewer about politics in crime fiction. He felt that overt political messages do not belong in the genre. I felt that covert or subconscious political leanings are part and parcel of all fiction. Think of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River in which a sex abuse victim is suspected by his oldest friend to have killed his daughter. Eventually, the friend kills the sex abuse victim, just before the real killers of the girl are caught. All good and fine, but the killer gets away with it and the cop who knows about it, another childhood friend, buries it. In the hands of right-winger Clint Eastwood, the story became a propagandist tract on not only casting the vulnerable in society aside, but on finding peace with doing so, on a societal level – essentially Republican, but also very much in tune with how the entire political elite in the US has been selling its narratives for decades.

In the 50s and 60s, several crime fiction authors, all remembered today, wrote on the other side of the political divide – Chester Himes wrote about the challenges African Americans in the US faced, Jim Thompson wrote about underdogs and was a member of the American communist party. John D. McDonald wrote about environmental destruction in Florida long before the environment became center stage in our lives, and Ross McDonald wrote about those who were abused by their families, with a sympathetic eye for anyone who’s had their self-confidence zapped. More recently too, some crime writers have championed the causes of underdogs, not least Stieg Larsson with the creation of his character Lisbeth Salander.

As the USA drift further and further away from the moral framework it created, and in any case, was never quite part of, as people are becoming more anxious about the future, it’s clear why Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is so phenomenally successful. It serves to comfort us by suggesting the horrors we have created are resolvable with a bit of vigilante action. When we start reading, we already know the bad guys will be pulped and most of the good guys will survive, be saved or rehabilitated. But neither Reacher nor James Bond nor Spiderman are around to teach us anything about the real world. They are around to make us forget that the darkness in our hearts is always there, ready to rise to the surface. As such they are formidable. But as a genre, crime fiction can offer so much more.

My latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image is a typical espionage caper. Narrative and characterizations follow traditions that will be immediately familiar to readers of crime fiction. But at the heart of my story lies the US’ extraordinary renditions program, the kidnapping and torture of Muslim terrorist suspects in the wake of 9/11. Detective Maier, and every other character in the book faced with the Americans’ inhumanity, is forced to recognize that they are but cogs in a giant cruel wheel that keeps on turning. As such they are placeholders for all of us, who within our modest means, have to make choices on how to react to government overreach, exploitation, environmental degradation, racism, sexism, misinformation, nationalism and constant war. That’s hardly comforting, but it’s damn interesting.

Buy a copy of The Monsoon Ghost Image here, 99cents until January 30th.

48 hours in . . . Bangkok, an insider guide to Thailand’s colourful capital in The Daily Telegraph

My latest look at Bangkok in The Daily Telegraph.

Welcome to Bangkok – a sprawling, humid metropolis of more than 10 million souls that rose along the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya river a little more than 200 years ago. Today, the Thai capital brims with interesting historic sites, stylish hotels, incredible culinary adventures, and fantastic shopping, and none of this need break the bank. The city has had some success in shedding its longstanding image of sleaze for a younger, more cosmopolitan mantle and is a pretty safe urban space. And while the military government has put the break on non-stop partying, the arts scene and the world-famous street food culture, many visitors continue to feel enchanted by this cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and moods. Bangkok remains on the map for its temples, palaces, malls and markets, but it’s the ever-present smiles of its citizens that give the city a quite lovely human dimension.

Read on…

On Hunting Humans….

My most recent post to promote The Monsoon Ghost Image is all about Hunting Humans….

My latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, features a man hunt. One of my villains, Krieger, a German tycoon, lives on an island in the south of Thailand that has been populated with large mammals, some not indigenous to Southeast Asia. There is a historic precedent for this.
In 1977, General Marcos, the former ruler of the Philippines, had 12 bushbucks, 11 elands, 11 gazelles, 15 giraffes, 18 impalas, 12 waterbucks, 10 topis, and 15 zebras transported from Kenya to Calauit Island, off the coast of Palawan. Some thrived, others died off. In the process of establishing his safari park, Marcos evicted 250 indigenous families to a barren rock island near-by. The inhabitants returned in 1987. Since then there have been poaching issues and the co-existence between the island’s original inhabitants and the animals remains tricky. There are various stories about why Marcos imported the animals, the most plausible being that his son was a keen hunter and daddy wanted to make him happy.
My German tycoon organizes human hunts for Asian high rollers on his island, ostensibly to dispose of former US prisoners from the War on Terror that the Americans want to disappear. In return the US turn a blind eye to his Telecom deals in countries hostile to America.
A long time ago, I heard stories, largely unsubstantiated though not completely unimaginable, that something like this existed in Cambodia during the country’s civil war in the mid-1980s. Someone had told me about a so-called James Bond Club, also for Asian high rollers, who were invited to act out a 007 fantasy which included the hunt and killing of a man and sex with unfortunate women. Those who fulfilled their missions allegedly received a 007 certificate.
In The Monsoon Ghost Image, the main protagonist Detective Maier, his Russian sidekick Mikhail and Shamil, a Muslim insurgent from Chechnya, are trapped on Krieger’s island, not only threatened by the wildlife, but hunted down by a psychotic plastic surgeon called Suraporn, who has a taste for dismemberment.
The idea of the hunted man is as old as literature, and great examples I’ve read include Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The 39 Steps (1915) by John Buchan, one great espionage thriller and my favorite Hitchcock movie. Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male (1939) is another classic in the genre, the story of a man who tries to kill Hitler and is then hunted by Nazis and the British police across Dorset.
In The Monsoon Ghost Image, the hunter, Suraporn, uses hypnosis with memory techniques, PWA and ideomotor suggestion to control his prey before he kills and then skilfully disfigures them by sewing animal parts to their faces. Maier and his companions are ill equipped to escape this man’s psy-ops weapons.
Nothing is created in total isolation. Writers owe everything to other writers and the stories they come across in daily life. While some of my fiction is loosely based on experiences I have made and scenes I have witnessed, a great deal is also culled, sometimes consciously, at other times instinctively, from all those stories written before I wrote.

Moon Angkor Wat – Third Edition out now!

The third updated edition of Moon Angkor Wat, my English language guide to the Angkor temples in Cambodia is out now, both in print and ebook format.

Reviewer Janet Brown had this to say:

I’m the kind of person who reads guidebooks to remember where I’ve been as well as to plan my next destination and in Tom Vater’s latest guide to Angkor Wat, I was given the opportunity to do both. From its extraordinary photographs, many of them taken by the author, and its wealth of clear and comprehensive maps, to its generosity in giving more than readers would expect from its title, this isn’t just a good guidebook. It’s an essential handbook to a generous portion of Cambodia, one that’s so well written that it can be enjoyed by armchair travelers as much as it will be used by those lucky devils with Cambodian visas stamped in their passports.

The Angkor Archeological Park is one of the most overwhelming places in the world, with beauty and mystery that can hit travelers like a tsunami and cause them to miss so much in order to see it all. Vater knows the temples well, not just the show-stoppers like the Bayon and Angkor Wat, but ones that are farther afield and easy to overlook. His detailed descriptions and careful directions ensure that his readers will see as much as they have time for, while visiting with an informed understanding of what they’re looking at.

But this book is a guide to more than the temples. Travelers staying in the nearby city of Siem Reap are given not only the basic recommendations for hotels and restaurants, but ones for bookstores and the city’s best swimming pools, for photography tours and the Cambodian version of Cirque du Soleil, the Phare Circus. Vater is frank about which museums are overpriced and which are worth seeing and why his readers can pass up Phnom Kulen.

Phnom Penh is covered in scrupulous detail including why it should be visited soon, but for me the best part of the book is the section that takes readers off the well-worn tourist tracks. From the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin to the spectacular grandeur of Preah Vihear, travelers are told how to get there and why they might want to, except in the case of Pailin, where they’re warned of “fleabag hotels,” and informed that the city ‘is no culinary paradise.”

A standout for me in this portion of the book is Battambang, a river city that’s less than three hours from Siem Reap where French colonial architecture coexists with Khmer modernism from the 1960s, where the art scene that was destroyed by the Pol Pot years is being revived, where Angkorean temples are woven into the fabric of daily life, and the original Phare Circus provides education and training to young Cambodians who might not otherwise receive it. With its good coffee, reasonable hotels, and a bookstore too, Battambang may turn out to be my next home in the world. Thank you, Tom Vater and Moon Handbooks!

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The Monsoon Ghost Image is 99cents!

The Monsoon Ghost Image, the third installment of the Detective Maier series, published by Crime Wave Press, is on a virtual book tour this week.

And an ebook copy is yours for just 99cents.

The third Detective Maier mystery is a taut and crazy spy thriller for our disturbing times.

When award-winning German conflict photographer Martin Ritter disappears in a boating accident in Thailand, the nation mourns the loss of a cultural icon. But a few weeks later, Detective Maier’s agency in Hamburg gets a call from Ritter’s wife. Her husband has been seen alive on the streets of Bangkok. Maier decides to travel to Thailand to find Ritter. But all he finds is trouble and a photograph.

As soon as Maier puts his hands on the Monsoon Ghost Image, the detective turns from hunter to hunted – the CIA, international business interests, a doctor with a penchant for mutilation and a woman who calls herself the Wicked Witch of the East all want to get their fingers on Martin Ritter’s most important piece of work – visual proof of a post 9/11 CIA rendition and the torture of a suspected Muslim terrorist on Thai soil. From the concrete canyons of the Thai capital to the savage jungles and hedonist party islands of southern Thailand, Maier and his sidekick Mikhail race against formidable foes to discover some of our darkest truths and to save their lives into the bargain.

Review of The Monsoon Ghost Image by Col’s Criminal Library.

Late to the party as usual with my first taste of Tom Vater’s Detective Maier series in what may prove to be his final outing.

Tense, violent, brutal, gripping, stunning and a savage indictment on how America conducts itself overseas in a post-9/11 world. Angry and political would be an apt description, as a hunt for a German photographer in Thailand, a man who faked his own death morphs into something much bigger.

I really enjoyed this one. There’s a darkness at it’s core and Vater conveys his outrage convincingly. Our protagonist, Maier ably assisted by Mikhail – a friend and fellow detective-cum-bodyguard-cum-security expert – track down the missing man, Ritter and uncover a photograph Ritter has taken. The Monsoon Ghost Image opens up a can of worms for our two accomplices and a massive red target has just been painted on their backs.

Torture, experimentation, dark arts, technology, big brother, black ops, rendition, a manhunt, a mysterious ally (or maybe not), Thai military complicity, a chilling and deranged doctor with hynoptic almost other-wordly powers and a penchant for creative surgery, a German billionaire with a callous indifference for humanity and an isolated jungle playground, ideal for indulging his sickness… and a helluva lot more.

At its heart we have Maier and Mikhail, our moral compass, shining a torch for the good guys and trying desperately to survive and outwit opponents with much greater influence and resources, while pondering what to do with the image. Mikhail with his previous tutelage in the Russian military/intelligence service is a bit more pragmatic than Maier in respect of fighting fire with fire, if it ensures their survival.

Topical – even though it’s set in the early 2000s, relevant, entertaining, thought provoking, decent settings, though I may have been dissuaded from ever wishing to visit Thailand in the future, sympathetic characters, pacey, not over-long and relevant.

 

The Monsoon Ghost Image goes on tour

Moon Angkor Wat 3rd edition out now!

The brand new third edition of my Moon Guide to the Angkor Wat temples is out now and it looks fantastic.

Here’s my complete line-up of titles for Moon, a US based travel guide publisher.

Get your copy here.

Reader and fellow author Janet Brown wrote:

I’m the kind of person who reads guidebooks to remember where I’ve been as well as to plan my next destination and in Tom Vater’s latest guide to Angkor Wat, I was given the opportunity to do both. From its extraordinary photographs, many of them taken by the author, and its wealth of clear and comprehensive maps, to its generosity in giving more than readers would expect from its title, this isn’t just a good guidebook. It’s an essential handbook to a generous portion of Cambodia, one that’s so well written that it can be enjoyed by armchair travelers as much as it will be used by those lucky devils with Cambodian visas stamped in their passports.

The Angkor Archeological Park is one of the most overwhelming places in the world, with beauty and mystery that can hit travelers like a tsunami and cause them to miss so much in order to see it all. Vater knows the temples well, not just the show-stoppers like the Bayon and Angkor Wat, but ones that are farther afield and easy to overlook. His detailed descriptions and careful directions ensure that his readers will see as much as they have time for, while visiting with an informed understanding of what they’re looking at.

But this book is a guide to more than the temples. Travelers staying in the nearby city of Siem Reap are given not only the basic recommendations for hotels and restaurants, but ones for bookstores and the city’s best swimming pools, for photography tours and the Cambodian version of Cirque du Soleil, the Phare Circus. Vater is frank about which museums are overpriced and which are worth seeing and why his readers can pass up Phnom Kulen.

Phnom Penh is covered in scrupulous detail including why it should be visited soon, but for me the best part of the book is the section that takes readers off the well-worn tourist tracks. From the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin to the spectacular grandeur of Preah Vihear, travelers are told how to get there and why they might want to, except in the case of Pailin, where they’re warned of “fleabag hotels,” and informed that the city ‘is no culinary paradise.”

A standout for me in this portion of the book is Battambang, a river city that’s less than three hours from Siem Reap where French colonial architecture coexists with Khmer modernism from the 1960s, where the art scene that was destroyed by the Pol Pot years is being revived, where Angkorean temples are woven into the fabric of daily life, and the original Phare Circus provides education and training to young Cambodians who might not otherwise receive it. With its good coffee, reasonable hotels, and a bookstore too, Battambang may turn out to be my next home in the world. Thank you, Tom Vater and Moon Handbooks!

Interviewed by Colman’s Criminal Library

Following a great review of my latest novel The Monsoon Ghost Image, Colman from Colman’s Criminal Library has taken the time to interview me, and I in return, have taken the time to ramble incessantly about my self and my work, to the point where it’s almost indecent.

Here’s a taster….

From what I little I know, you’re a German national, with a strong connection to Asia. You run a well-respected indie publishing house – Crime Wave Press – you write fiction and non-fiction in the form of travel guides and more. What don’t you do?

Ah, yes, that is my quick bio, thanks, Col. You saved me all the heavy lifting. To add to that briefly… I have walked across the Himalayas, had the opportunity to dive with hundreds of sharks in the Philippines, and witnessed the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the world. I have travelled with sea gypsies and nomads, pilgrims, sex workers, serial killers, rebels and soldiers, politicians and secret agents, artists, pirates, hippies, gangsters, policemen and prophets. Some of them have become close friends. Others appear in the articles and books I write.

I am a journalist specialising in South and Southeast Asia. I’ve also written a bunch of non-fiction books including bestsellers like Sacred Skin (www.sacredskinthailand.com) and several feature documentaries. That’s the day job which I love. But I got into all this because I wanted to write fiction. I wrote my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, just as I was starting off in journalism.

I don’t jump out of planes, I don’t eat sea food. I don’t take my hat off.

Read the rest here, support freelance writers, and buy my books. Thanks, happy Xmas and Happy New Year.

The Monsoon Ghost Image reviewed at Col’s Criminal Library

Col’s Criminal Library posted a fantastic review of The Monsoon Ghost Image today.

Late to the party as usual with my first taste of Tom Vater’s Detective Maier series in what may prove to be his final outing.

Tense, violent, brutal, gripping, stunning and a savage indictment on how America conducts itself overseas in a post-9/11 world. Angry and political would be an apt description, as a hunt for a German photographer in Thailand, a man who faked his own death morphs into something much bigger.

I really enjoyed this one. There’s a darkness at it’s core and Vater conveys his outrage convincingly. Our protagonist, Maier ably assisted by Mikhail – a friend and fellow detective-cum-bodyguard-cum-security expert – track down the missing man, Ritter and uncover a photograph Ritter has taken. The Monsoon Ghost Image opens up a can of worms for our two accomplices and a massive red target has just been painted on their backs.

Torture, experimentation, dark arts, technology, big brother, black ops, rendition, a manhunt, a mysterious ally (or maybe not), Thai military complicity, a chilling and deranged doctor with hynoptic almost other-wordly powers and a penchant for creative surgery, a German billionaire with a callous indifference for humanity and an isolated jungle playground, ideal for indulging his sickness… and a helluva lot more.

At its heart we have Maier and Mikhail, our moral compass, shining a torch for the good guys and trying desperately to survive and outwit opponents with much greater influence and resources, while pondering what to do with the image. Mikhail with his previous tutelage in the Russian military/intelligence service is a bit more pragmatic than Maier in respect of fighting fire with fire, if it ensures their survival.

Topical – even though it’s set in the early 2000s, relevant, entertaining, thought provoking, decent settings, though I may have been dissuaded from ever wishing to visit Thailand in the future, sympathetic characters, pacey, not over-long and relevant.

Blurb for The Monsoon Ghost Image, third installment of the Detective Maier Mystery series published by Crime Wave Press.

DIRTY PICTURES, SECRET WARS AND HUMAN BEASTS – DETECTIVE MAIER IS BACK TO INVESTIGATE THE POLITICS OF MURDER

The third Detective Maier mystery is a taut and crazy spy thriller for our disturbing times.

When award-winning German conflict photographer Martin Ritter disappears in a boating accident in Thailand, the nation mourns the loss of a cultural icon. But a few weeks later, Detective Maier’s agency in Hamburg gets a call from Ritter’s wife. Her husband has been seen alive on the streets of Bangkok. Maier decides to travel to Thailand to find Ritter. But all he finds is trouble and a photograph.

As soon as Maier puts his hands on the Monsoon Ghost Image, the detective turns from hunter to hunted – the CIA, international business interests, a doctor with a penchant for mutilation and a woman who calls herself the Wicked Witch of the East all want to get their fingers on Martin Ritter’s most important piece of work – visual proof of a post 9/11 CIA rendition and the torture of a suspected Muslim terrorist on Thai soil. From the concrete canyons of the Thai capital to the savage jungles and hedonist party islands of southern Thailand, Maier and his sidekick Mikhail race against formidable foes to discover some of our darkest truths and to save their lives into the bargain.

Interviewed at Rainne’s Ramblings

I am interviewed at Rainne’s Ramblings this week about my brand new novel The Monsoon Ghost Image, the Detective Maier Mystery series and about how I became a writer.

Here’s a taster:

How did your journey as a writer begin?

I was living in a cheap room in a cheap guest house on Freak Street in Kathmandu in the mid 90s. The couple in the room next door had cycled from Europe to Nepal and were trying to sell stories about their adventures. I was in Nepal recording indigenous music, I had a tiny grant from the British Library to do this. The couple’s English wasn’t great, so I helped them edit their stories and then went to a local newspaper with them. They sold one of their stories and I asked the editor if he’d buy a story by a foreigner about Nepali music and he said yes.

I don’t think I’ve done anything else professionally since then, other than writing. I wrote a few articles for the paper in Kathmandu and then went back to the UK and was interviewed by Rough Guides and then sent to Thailand to write part of a guidebook. Once in Thailand, I started working for local magazines. Then international ones. Now I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, covering cultural, economic stories across South and Southeast Asia for a bunch of media outlets. And I write crime novels and co-own a crime fiction publishing house, Crime Wave Press .

Incidentally, that couple, I met them again a year or so later in Thailand and by that time they’d been on the road for so long, they’d gone crazy. They thought everyone was out to get them. We spent a couple of days together in the south and had planned to travel to a remote island by the Thai Burmese border. But then they suddenly accused me of having stolen some of their money and broke into my hotel room to beat the crap out of me. They didn’t find their money of course and scuttled away eventually. I lifted that moment into my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu.

Read the full interview here.

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