We reviewed a while back the first in the series, The Coroner’s Lunch, and while we’ve not dipped into the others along the way, they do each stand alone so you’ll have no trouble enjoying any you happen to find.
I Shot the Buddha in particular sees retired coroner Dr Siri and his friends investigate three murders. The backdrop is Laos, 1979. To set the regional scene: The Communist Pathet Lao are in power; the Thais are under military rule; and there’s talk of a Vietnamese puppet government being installed in Cambodia. Dr Siri and his spunky wife Madame Daeng are living above their popular Vientiane noodle shop, and have let an array of people move into their government-given house. One of the sheltered has been nomadic Buddhist monk Noo, who is abducted one day as he cycles out of the city.
Foreshadowing this, Noo has left a message for Dr Siri, asking him to help smuggle out Laos’ Supreme Patriarch to Thailand. Of course Dr Siri and Madame Daeng jump at the opportunity to get involved in a caper, and while on the outskirts of Thailand's Udon Thani they get embroiled into unravelling the mystery of several murders. Meanwhile, their friend Civilai is sent by the government to check on whether a reincarnation of the Buddha has been found, but it all seems a little odd; other subplots, some of which are supernatural, spin around their orbit, all to be tied nicely together at the end.
What we love about Cotterill’s books isn’t so much their plots, though these do move along at a clip to keep you turning the page well after you promised yourself you’d turn the light out. We love even more the comprehensive portrait he paints of Vientiane in the 1970s—it’s all very realistic rather than overly romanticised—and how he gives full agency to an array of colourful Vientiane characters. Indeed, Cotterill said when interviewed by NPR in 2012: “You'd find Laos extras in a novel talking about the Vietnam War, but you never saw the Lao as people. And so what I wanted to do was to give them a voice and personality and feelings.” We like too that one of the cast is a Down syndrome character, Mr Geung, “who often caused them to forget that Down Syndrome was a disadvantage, laughed and raised his own glass of deathly sweet undiluted orange cordial. He called it the hard stuff.”
Cotterill gives his characters excellent senses of humour. Consider Siri asking Civilai why he’s being sent to check out the potentially new Buddha. He replies,” …they had to find someone decommissioned and neutral.” “And you’re neutral?” Siri asks. “I have splinters from all the fence sitting I do,” Civilai quips. Cotterill also has a certain knack for describing people in a few quick lines: One character, for instance, “walked as if he expected a wild boar to run between his legs”.
While you wouldn’t describe the Siri series as pure historical fiction, snippets of interesting history is deftly, and amusingly, woven into I Shot the Buddha. Siri, for instance, studied in Paris back in the day, as many of the Lao elite did. But instead of labouring this point, it’s mentioned more as an aside, and we’re told that in Parisian restaurants, Siri “had always been bemused by the lowering of volume as the menu price increased. He’d never been to a Michelin-rated restaurant but he imagined large rooms as silent as libraries where orders were taken in mime and soup slurpers were thrown out unceremoniously on their derrieres.”
The Siri series is a great dive into Lao life with all its quirks and mysteries, both superficial and murderous. Typical English-language books focused on Laos tend to be heavy-going histories or serious memoir; while there is of course a place for these, I Shot the Buddha is whimsical counterbalance and a fine travel read. We suggested that you read The Coroner’s Lunch in a hammock on the 4,000 Islands. Perhaps you could tuck I Shot the Buddha into your bag to read during the evenings while doing the Tha Khaek loop.
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