I'd heard good things about this series featuring Dr. Siri, the 74-year-old National Coroner of Laos. Set in the late 1970s, the story provides a portrait of life in the new People's Democratic Republic of Laos and its uneasy relationship with its neighbors' new regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia. This historical and political background, though important, is sketched in briefly, a sentence here and there, barely discernible in the flow of the story in which Dr. Siri is called in on three related murders, young women who have been impaled by curiously sharpened épées.
Cotterill shows a Laos that seems less repressive than my preconceptions. Dr. Siri and his old friend, Civilai, carry on amusingly about the absurdities of the bureaucracy without fear of repercussions. They even feel safe enough to make fun of and try to undermine the applications for hero status which they have been invited to submit. Though the serious clerk does pull them up sharp with her own remarks, there are no threats or reprisals.
My favorite parts of the story are these conversations between the two friends, many at the cigarette and alcohol stand behind the market whose proprietor is called Two Thumbs because both of his thumbs are on one hand. When Civilai is asked to go on a diplomatic mission to Cambodia, supposedly just a public relations jaunt, he nominates his friend Siri as his companion. Siri agrees, remembering happy days in Phnom Penh with his first wife, Boua. He assumes his investigation will be wrapped up by then, even though Inspector Phosy seems set on the wrong suspect.
I found the investigation fascinating, with unexpected twists and turns complicated by the unfamiliar (to me) culture. I also liked that in the rush of the story, Cotterill found time for small descriptions that evoke the scenes and the way of life, such as the two-story spirit house constructed by Siri's wife Daeng. The upstairs is for the ancestors, protected with buddhas, incense, and wooden elephants, while the downstairs is for the phaphoom, spirits displaced from the land, their consumer longings appeased by doll furniture, toy tv and miniature Mercedes Benz. The rainy season has stayed beyond its limits, as though to make up for the previous year's drought, and as the story gathers speed we see rain finally begin to seep into a corner of the morgue where Siri's assistants, Nurse Dtui and Geung, construct a dam of sandbags. This corner eventually becomes a pond with a couple of water lilies.
Cotterill handles the mix of humor and gravity beautifully. Civilai, Phosy, Daeng, Dtui, Geung and other characters emerge as people interesting in themselves. Less successful to my mind were the interspersed scenes of a future or past situation involving Dr. Siri. Still, there was much to interest me, and I'll certainly look for more in the series.