The Peoples Republic of Laos must rival Botswana or Mongolia as one of the more unusual settings for a mystery novel, particularly when the action takes place in the heady days following the Vietnam War. Such is the case with Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, featuring an elderly coroner who has not quite come to grips with the “Peoples Republic” component of his beloved country. The latest in the series, Love Songs From a Shallow Grave, finds the crotchety but lovable senior investigating the deaths of a group of young women who have been murdered with epees. What is an epee, you ask? It is the sort of flexible sword used in fencing, although in that application it is rendered rather less deadly by the application of a cork onto the point.
Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of the more original protagonists ever to grace a mystery novel, as he is a holdover from the pre-Communist Lao regime, a recently married septuagenarian, and something of a shaman. Or, more precisely, his body serves as the host for a long-dead shaman, who has a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. Indeed, all manner of ghosts channel in and out of Dr. Siri’s consciousness, and it takes quite an effort on his part to keep their existence off the radar of his superior officers. Said superiors, by the way, really have no idea what to do with Siri, as he is a) the only coroner in postwar Laos, b) a bit of a firebrand, and c) oddly well connected when push comes to shove. So, he soldiers on, by turns oblivious or non-caring with regard to the political machinations that go on all around him.
Author Cotterill is a true Asia hand, having lived several years in Laos and Thailand, and it shows in his writing. Last year he won the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger in the Library Award, for being “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users.” In addition to his Dr. Siri books, he has written a program on English language for Thai television, three stand-alone novels based on his studies of child abuse in Southeast Asia, and a cartoon scrapbook, Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket. (Phuket, pronounced Foo-KETT, is a resort island off the coast of Thailand.)
Cotterill’s work is appealing in much the same sort of way as that of Alexander McCall Smith: both feature unusual protagonists, both feature off-the-beaten-path settings, both boast a playful command of the language, and both can spin a tale quite engaging, even to readers with no familiarity with their respective milieus.
The Siri Paiboun series: The Coroner’s Lunch (2004); Thirty-Three Teeth (2005); Disco for the Departed (2006); Anarchy and Old Dogs (2007); Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008, you can see my review of this one in BookPage magazine, www.bookpage.com ); The Merry Misogynist (2009); Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (2010).
A brief footnote: after his Dr. Siri books garnered well-deserved popularity, Colin Cotterill founded Books for Laos, a voluntary program supported by his readers and fans, with the mission of providing books for Lao children and sponsoring trainee teachers.