8 May 2008


The opening setting is Vientiane, People's Democratic Republic of Laos, in March 1977. A large Vietnamese delegation is staying at the Lan Xang Hotel. In the back garden of the hotel are some cages, one housing a mal-treated black mountain bear which escapes. The once retired and very reluctant national coroner, 72 year old Dr. Siri Paiboun, lives in a concrete mausoleum of a building in an outer suburb. On Monday morning when he arrives at the morgue for work Siri already has guests: two men found dead on a bicycle in the middle of the street.

Conditions in the morgue are primitive, and not airconditioned. Siri is assisted in his autopsies by the very observant Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung, a downs syndrome man with an incredible memory. Siri brings to the mix "mystic connections", dreams, intuition, and visitations from the dead. Sometimes Siri has a problem in telling the dreams from reality, particularly after he's had a vodka drinking session with his good friend Comrade Civilai.

No sooner have they solved the puzzle of the dead men on the bicycle, than the rather odd team is presented with the body of old Auntie See, discovered in the bushes near her shanty, mauled to death. Almost simultaneously Siri is told his presence is required at the royal capital of Luang Prabang. He is required to discover where two rather carbonised corpses have come from. Such are the duties of Laos' national coroner.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is Cotterill's underlying humour. There are also glimpses of forensic pathology far removed from the world of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. For those of us whose countries fought in the Vietnam War, this is also a look at the post-war world of Laos.

Cotterill's writing style is very laconic. Reminds me a bit of William Mcinnes although of course the latter isn't writing crime fiction. I said also earlier that it reminded me a lot of Alexander Mccall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and although the setting is very different, and in many ways, more third world, the connection is still there for me. Politically it gives a picture in which the revolutionary government is being tolerated by its citizens, but there is no doubt, that despite physical enforcement, the Laotian government remains in power only because the people tolerate it.

This novel, #2 in Cotterill's Siri Paiboun series, won't be everybody's cup of tea, and there was nearly too much of the "mystic" connections for me. But then this is a reminder that in some cultures the spiritual world exists in parallel with the physical, and so we must accept that in Dr. Siri's elderly body resides a very ancient spirit. If this were medieval England we would have no difficulty in accepting a belief in the influence of the spirits of good and evil on our daily lives.

So what has 33 teeth? Sorry- you'll have to read the book to find out.

My rating: 4.3

Colin Cotterill trained as a physical education teacher and, now an Australian citizen, has lived and worked in Israel, Australia, USA, Japan, Thailand and Laos. He presently lives in Chiang Mai. His entertaining website tells you a lot about him, his books, and his Books for Laos project.

Titles to look for in the Dr. Siri series


Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right that the book has "nearly" too much mysticism. Cotterill does a nice job of including just enough of a spiritual dimension to avoid putting off hard-headed rationalists like me while still showing the spiritual dimension to his characters' lives.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Kerrie said...

Some more links to look for

Maxine's review

Another review by Maxine

See also
(by Helen)
Helen's review

Anonymous said...

i think youre right his writing style is very laconic. I love it. I think its clever in a way.

I LOVED this post!

God Bless,

Kerrie said...

Thanks for dropping by Leanna

Anonymous said...

Hi Kerrie.

Came here via a very long route, but also live in Adelaide. Love the blog. Have read the Coroner's Lunch (twice), but searching for local copies (in the 'local' shop) of the other titles, drew a blank. So off to the net we go.

As for Cotterill's use of mysticism, it's a very clever technique, isn't it.

But in that part of the neighbourhood (especially where people aren't so wealthy / material - like Cambodia and Burma) the spirit world is very much alive and well. Even the hyper-rich (like the rulers et al) routinely consult astrologers and and the like - so it's hard to avoid its impact. With Cotterill living in Chiang Mai (which mirrors Adelaide's 'city of churches' tag as 'city of temples'), I'm amazed he keeps it all in check!

Kerrie said...

Welcome Damien. I think we have some very discerning readers here in Adelaide


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