In 1976, the Lao monarchy has just been deposed by the Communists. Dr Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old, Paris-trained doctor has been appointed state coroner by the new government, despite having no experience or interest in the job. While the sassy doctor has settled into the job, using old text books and occasionally calling on a chemistry teacher friend to help with some cases, it’s on the whole a quiet life.
Lunchtimes are spent munching on baguettes by the Mekong river in the company of a Politburo friend, and in a seemingly not-that-unusual-for-Laos twist, occasional nocturnal visits are made by those on whom Dr Siri has carried out autopsies. But things take an ominous turn when the wife of a party leader turns up dead along with a trio of apparently tortured Vietnamese men. The doctor has no choice but to turn his attention to solving the crimes.
Cotterill does a fine job of presenting a varied, nuanced and intriguing selection of characters, who divulge plenty of Lao and regional history as they march across the page. Consider, for instance, the casual mentioning of the re-education camps on Nam Ngum, near where the three Vietnamese bodies are found: “They could see the two islands in the distance: Don Thao for the male villains and addicts, and Don Nang for the ladies. Siri dreaded to think what type of rehabilitation was going on there.”
It’s the little details that round out this book smartly and take it beyond a simple foreign-set mystery: “It did seem rather hard to believe that in 72 years, Siri hadn’t once handled a phone. But Laos wasn’t a phone culture. There were fewer than 900 working telephones in the entire country, and most of those were in government offices. Even during Laos’s dizzy heights of corruption, only the very well-off families had had their own phones.”
Along with the mystery itself, we loved the liberal use of dry humour, mostly dispensed by Siri. For instance, when Siri visits his teacher-friend: “‘What are you sniffing that for? They don’t spoil, do they?' 'No, I get a little buzz. Want some?’” And: “He hadn’t the foggiest idea what had killed Mrs Nitnoy. He could give a list as long as your distal tibia of things that hadn’t. She hadn’t been hit by a train (as there were none in Laos).”
And so on. We found ourselves highlighting far more than we expected to and laughing out loud. Read this book while swinging in a hammock on the 4,000 Islands. If you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll learn more perhaps than you’re expecting and be pleasantly entertained as well.
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