It is Dr. Siri's nature that he is faintly amused and amazed by just about everything in this world. It is Dr. Siri's burden that many inhabitants of the world beyond this one intrude into Siri's life with their silent messages.
It is a glorious gift that a village witch has determined that the bones of the beloved brother of a state minister rests in a bend in the Mekong River, not far from the sleepy and oppressed village of Pak Lai. So the minister assembles a team to get the bones back. Dr. Siri has been called out of retirement to perform the services of a coroner. As a result of this excursion they take together, Siri becomes acquainted with the witch.
The witch is so-called because she has died, been cremated, and awoke in her bed to a second chance at life. She says that she now can see the dead, just as Siri does. (Siri calls himself "a spiritual suitcase.") Moreover, the dead talk to her, whereas the sound button is broken on Siri's receiver. The witch, Madame Peung or Madame Keui ("Who Used to Be a Woman"), as she is now known, agrees to help Siri to turn up the volume on his own visions.
Also along on the trip are Madame Daeng, Siri's wife; Geung, his former morgue attendant; and Siri's best friend, Civilai, himself temporarily out of retirement on political matters. Nurse Dtui and Inspector Phosy, other regularly appearing characters, remain in Vientiane but are called upon to provide investigation for Siri and Daeng.
Siri is especially anxious to get Daeng out of town, because he learns that she is being hunted by a foreigner, someone who apparently has long-ago ties to her. Through her own writings in a "memoir," we learn more about Daeng's involvement in the rebellion against the French invaders. It becomes apparent that the man knows Daeng because of something that happened way back when.
Cotterill's light and humorous touches belie the very serious subjects he always brings up in his books. His setting is Laos in the 1970s, at a time when the Communist Party rules with a rusty iron fist. The country is still recovering from the wars of the last few decades. Siri and his gang are nonconformists, and we cheer their every insubordinate move.
The Woman Who Wouldn't Die is satisfying because 1) it continues the Siri series and 2) it mixes the terrible, wonderful, and whimsical in perfect proportions. In the end, I enjoyed the mystery of the sunken boat more than the mystery of Daeng's pursuer, but I suppose it was time to peek into what makes Daeng tick.