Soho Crime, 304 pages, $26.95
Revenge is a dish best served in the thirteenth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Author Colin Cotterill has had a winner since “The Coroner’s Lunch” was released in 2004. The series began in 1970s Laos and Cotterill has worked his way up to 1980 in “Don’t Eat Me.” It is a time in which: “Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks.”
The sterling cast of characters include Siri, his wife Daeng, Siri’s ex-morgue nurse Dtui and her husband Phosy (now Chief Inspector Phosy), Siri’s ex-morgue assistant Geung and his girlfriend Tukta, and Siri’s old pal and former Communist Party bigwig Civilai. Transvestite fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo has been around a while and she certainly was a character when she was alive, but she is possibly more irritating dead. She is Siri’s spirit guide, as the ghostly world tries to throw Siri a bone to help him in the real world. Sometimes the bone lands with a clunk, however.
Although I rarely insist on reading a series in order, I think this series needs to be one of those exceptions, especially for “Don’t Eat Me.” One of the standing villainous characters has a big part in this. Because Soho Press is fabulous, all of Cotterill’s books are available.
Siri and Daeng have settled back into the rhythm of the noodle shop as the story opens, after having had quite a bit of excitement attending the Olympics in Moscow. But since Siri and Civilai are like two naughty boys, despite their 70+ years, they are challenged by Phosy when they are caught smuggling something large and bulky over the Mekong from Thailand. A nuclear weapon? A dead body? A priceless artifact? Nah. This is a Dr. Siri book, remember.
What they smuggle in becomes the centerpiece for the comic relief in the book. The bureaucratic humbuggery stutters to life when Siri and Civilai decide to film a movie, a Laotian “War and Peace.” Humor and cleverness ensue. This proves just the counterbalance to the very serious issue discussed in the rest of the book: wild animal trafficking.
Phosy cannot stand to be a paper-shuffling administrator. Even though he is the chief inspector, he begins a hands-on investigation of a skeleton found discarded on a main road. It appears to be that of a young woman, only recently deceased. Dtui, an informal coroner for her husband, determines that there are animal marks on the bones. From there, Phosy journeys deeper into the dark heart of Laos to find those animals, ably assisted by only a few well-chosen police officers. Phosy has been cleaning house and many former officers, including his predecessor, now languish in prison, charged with corruption.
I’ve tried to be circumspect about what I reveal about the storyline. Cotterill writes his story as if he were deconstructing an onion. The layers fall off and in the center there are surprises a-plenty for the denouement.
It’s hard to combine both tragedy and comedy, but Cotterill does it well. His love for his adopted home of Southeast Asia comes through, as well as his desire to highlight various problems the countries have.