Soho Crime, 256 pages, $26.95 (release date - 5/19/15)
The easy byplay among the continuing characters is charming and funny and built upon ten-plus years of character-building stories created by British-born, Thai resident Colin Cotterill. That’s not to say you couldn’t just jump in at this point;. I think you very much could. But should you need a run-down of characters, here it is.
The books take place in the 1970s in Vientiane, Laos. Dr. Siri was (since retired) the only coroner in Communist Laos. He did his best to steer clear of politics and wanted only to do his best. He was assisted by Nurse Dtui, who became a formidable woman and capable of doing an autopsy herself. A few books ago, Dr. Siri married Daeng, a former stealthy agent for the Pathet Lao and current noodle seller (except her business burned down in the last book). Popping in and out are a few other characters, some living and some dead: Comrade Civilai, the most un-Communist Communist party bureaucrat ever; Geung, a Downs syndrome man with a big heart; the aforementioned Auntie Bpoo, a transvestite ghost; and Inspector Phosy, Dtui’s husband. Since Siri and Civilai both retired a few books ago, they and Daeng have managed to get into just as much trouble as before.
This time Siri and Daeng have received in the mail a mysterious skirt made in the traditional Lao style of weaving. They track the pattern to a village in the northern part of Laos. Taking half the cloth and the severed, preserved finger they found sewn into the lining of the skirt, Siri and Daeng head off to the north to find out why they were sent these items. Dtui is charged with getting a chemical analysis of the other half of the cloth, and that provides her with an unexpected adventure of her own. Phosy has been sent to the north on a mission to determine who killed the headmen of two small villages. Civilai, too, is up north, but his mission is mysterious. He may be there on an important diplomatic mission or on a time-wasting one to get his pain-in-the-ass self out of Vientiane.
Although these storylines are couched in his trademark good humor, Cotterill almost always teaches us a serious lesson about Southeast Asian history. And so it is with this book. The Chinese are invading Vietnam. Laos, unfortunate in its geographical location, stands in the way. Many of the Lao people, especially in the north, have Chinese ancestry, and this is the background for Siri’s quest.
Cotterill has much devilment in store for his readers with this book. It was a treat to follow the twists and turns, which end, of course, in the twining of the various stories into one.
Here is an MBTB star for how thoroughly Cotterill surprised me (and for working in an Irving Berlin quote).