This is the fifth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series set in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri is a reluctant coroner, placed in his current position by an imperious Communist government. In his 70s, Dr. Siri still has all his wits about him – plus the wits that should have been allocated to his superior, Judge Haeng – and the energy of a much younger man. He also has a spiritual advisor, the normally dormant Yeh Ming, a long-deceased village shaman. Late in life, besides his association with Yeh Ming, Dr. Siri has developed the ability to see spirits from The Otherworld. They lead him into and out of danger, with unpredictability as their hallmark.
Within the purview of entertainment, not academic disquisition, Colin Cotterill does a good job of representing the Hmong culture, which has survived turmoil, war, and displacement throughout the years. Dr. Siri comes face to face with the hidden and disenfranchised Hmong when his vehicle is attacked and he is taken hostage. His captors are generous, kind, and need his spiritual help. This is in stark contrast to the obligatory party mission he was on when he was captured. It was, ironically, to show how safe travel in Laos had become under the new regime, and it was in the company of sullen and disagreeable Party members.
While Dr. Siri is attempting to restore spiritual balance to the war-reduced population of one Hmong community, his loyal friends and assistants (Nurse Dtui, fiancée Daeng, policeman Phossy, retired Party power player Civilai, and morgue worker Geung) are fighting a terrorist plot in Vientiane.
Cotterill writes with humor and respect for the culture that was and with insight about the unsettled politics of the time. Despite the slightly fantastical terrorist plot (as if seeing spirits weren't fantastical!) in this book, I have found that time has not diminished Cotterill's ability to entrance and illuminate. This is still one of the best mystery series, and one I love to recommend.