Soho Crime, 352 pages, $26.95
Once again author Colin Cotterill sends his series characters on outrageous missions, this time with a warning: "A mental health warning: Through necessity this edition is heavily spiced with supernatural elements. For those of you who prefer your mysteries dull and earthly, this is not the tome for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you."
If you have never read a Dr. Siri Paiboun book before, I’m not sure this would be the place to start. It’s true that Cotterill introduced Dr. Siri’s ability to see “ghosts” from the start (“The Coroner’s Lunch”), but the ghosts have sometimes been less useful than decorative. Cotterill has increasingly made use of the Laotian spirit world (or, more specifically, Dr. Siri’s spirit world) in subsequent books. In “I Shot the Buddha,” ghosts, spirits, shamans, fortune tellers, monks, “the other world,” demons, Auntie Bpoo (a transvestite ghost personally known to Siri when she was alive), amulets, and supernatural shenanigans are at the forefront.
Were you to work backwards in the series from this point, the other novels would seem tamer. Tame is a relative term, since the setting for the series is (mostly) Vientiane, Laos, in the 1970s. Communism is raging on, and Siri and his friends try not to knock on that political door and do try to have a good time, enjoy each other’s company, and sell noodles.
For most of the series (now eleven in number), Siri was Dr. Siri, the only coroner in all of Laos. For him and his morgue assistants, Nurse Dtui and Geung, death was not only a matter to be dissected and labeled, it was to be challenged if suspiciously acquired. Suspiciously acquired death and the investigation thereof always brought peril to the gang, and Cotterill’s version of Laos was eye-opening, amusing, and a gentle reminder that not everything can be understood in Western terms.
Besides his morgue cohorts, Siri’s wife Madame Daeng; Dtui’s husband, Inspector Phosy Vongvichai; and Siri’s old friend, former politburo member Civilai Songsawat are the main characters who almost always have a story or two of their own.
The connecting theme this time is Buddhism. Civilai is off to investigate the claim that an auto mechanic in the tiny village of Ban Toop is the next incarnation of Buddha. He finds a strange and quiet town, with reticent citizens and an elusive headman. Maitreya, the mechanic, laughs off the nomination of enlightenment, and Civilai agrees. Instead of leaving, however, Civilai acts on the feeling that something is not right in the village and decides to snoop, Buddha or no Buddha.
Thai forest monk Noo has been in exile from Thailand and is bedding down in the house Siri was awarded by the Laotian government, but in which he does not live. Instead, Siri invites an odd assortment of lovable people to live in the house, one of whom is Noo. When Noo disappears, at first there is no worry. He is an itinerant monk, after all. Then there is worry and Nurse Dtui, Inspector Phosy, and Geung take on the duty of finding Noo in Vientiane.
Seventy-five-year old, retired coroner Siri and the former "fleur-de-lis of the Free Lao underground movement,” Madame Daeng, in the meantime, have elected to carry out Noo’s mission to ferry a mysterious monk from Laos across a mine-filled river to Thailand. The monk turns out to be Sangharaj, the Supreme Patriarch of Laotian Buddhists. He has been called to Thailand to help out Abbot Rayron who is being framed for several murders. The village of Sawan, where the temple is located, contains a bizarre collection of spiritual helpers, “the Disneyland of animism.” Some evil lurks in its corners, but everyone seems reluctant to talk about it.
“Monks,” one of the characters observes, “are just men with very short haircuts.” And serious enemies. And surprising backstories. And otherworldly allies. Elsewhere, a character complains, “Monks … are like penguins. Once the eyebrows were gone, he couldn’t make out one from the next.”
Cotterill leads his merry band in philosophical meanderings, with a wry sense of humor. He is not above a gruesome tidbit or two, however. In this book, as with all the Dr. Siri books, the enjoyment comes from a well-told tale, an exotic look at a different culture, and a humor that chides not just one of the characters but the reader as well. Whether you can dig the vibes of a story with spiritual doors between planes of existence, ghostly possession (Siri is sharing psychic space with a thousand-year-old sage), doomsday demon fighting, and the like will color your appreciation of this story. As Cotterill first noted, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”