Each year we search for books on which to stick our "I loved it" star. For me, a starred book has to have at least some humor, a story with heart, and great writing. Whoopee! I've found my first MBTB star of 2010.
Colin Cotterill's creation, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is the only coroner in 1970s Laos. The Communist government often gives him and his morgue assistants, nurse Dtui and Geung, conniptions, but they still manage to find their way to the truth behind the murders they're asked to investigate. Siri's wife, Daeng; his best friend, retired politician Civilai; and Dtui's husband, police officer Phosy, are often woven into the plot as well.
In this seventh book in the series, Cotterill presents us with a split narrative. The main story finds Siri contemplating the strange murders of three women who have been skewered by épées -- fencing swords. Most Laotians wouldn't know an épée from a teepee, so eventually the trail leads out of Laos to Soviet bloc countries. Each of the young women had studied in another country, but the clues don't point to an outsider. Rather, the noose may tighten on a member of an elite community of Communist politicos who reside in a former American compound. Dr. Siri and his crew must tread with light toes on rice paper.
The other tale, scattered in pieces throughout the main story, is the inner musings of a prisoner being held in Cambodia in wretched conditions. The reign of terror of the infamous Khmer Rouge has caught someone near and dear to us readers: Dr. Siri. The tale of how Siri wound up in Cambodia and why he is in captivity slowly becomes apparent, and it is a tale that will make the stoutest heart quail. So, as the fencing tale unfolds into clarity, the Cambodian tale sinks into darker and more fetid waters.
Cotterill has begun our re-education. Decades after the atrocities of the "Killing Fields" and conflagrations begun by the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he does not want us to forget what has happened. Underlying his often humorous, often light-hearted tale, is a serious look at the cultures whose worlds were turned upside-down.
The important part of the story, however, is this: family. After the birth of their baby girl, Nurse Dtui and police officer Phosy's relationship appears to be a little rocky. Civilai's wife has left her home; Civilai claims it is to visit her sister, but he has been looking seedier and seedier as the days drag on. Geung has discovered another Downs Syndrome worker in the hospital complex that houses the morgue, and he feels threatened. Rajid watched most of his family drown as they tried to escape across the muddy waters of Mekong into Laos. Now he sits across the street from Daeng's noodle shop beneath his umbrella day after day in the torrential rains that pour mercilessly down upon Laos. They are all members of Siri's "family," and he and Daeng must try to help them all. These stories glue the main narratives together.
Have I mentioned the ghosts yet? They don't play a huge part in this story, but it is Dr. Siri's singular ability to see the spirits of the departed that sets Cotterill's series apart from the rest. You might think – erroneously – that if Siri can see the spirit of the murder victim, it would be a cinch to catch the murderer. But, alas, that isn't how it works. Often the connection to the spirit world is like talking on an iPhone with your hand over the antenna; it's a little iffy. He has no control over whom he sees. His spirit guide, an ancestral shaman, gets a little lost and "speaks" metaphorically, and doesn't appear at all in this book. An apparition, who may or may not be Siri's mother, sits silently, chewing on betel leaves and dribbling red juice down her chin. The spirits are more buzzing gnats than helpmates.
What's there not to like?