It's 1976 and Dr. Siri Paiboun, one of the last doctors left in Laos after the Communist takeover, has been drafted to be national coroner. He is untrained for the job, but this independent 72-year-old has an outstanding qualification for it: curiosity. He has survived thirty years as a revolutionary cadre, field-dressing wounds in jungles and caves and saving lives. And he doesn't mind incurring the wrath of the Party hierarchy as he unravels mysterious murders, because the spirits of the dead are on his side.
With the help of his newly-appointed secretary, the ambitious and shrewd Dtui, and Mr. Geung, the Down-Syndrome-afflicted morgue assistant, Dr. Paiboun performs autopsies and begins asking questions to solve the mysteries relating to the death of the wife of a government official and of the unidentified body fished out of the river who didn't drown but was tortured with electricity. As it turns out, all is not peaceful and calm in the new Communist paradise of Laos.
Confronted by the poisoning of an important official's wife and the sudden appearance of three bodies that may create an international incident between Laos and Vietnam, 72-year-old state coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun keeps his cool in Cotterill's engaging whodunit, set in Laos a year after the 1975 Communist takeover. Ably assisted by the entertaining Geung and ambitious Dtui, Siri calmly gleans clues from minute examinations of the bodies while circumnavigating bureaucratic red tape to arrive at justice. Only an attempt on his life manages to rattle him--and for good reason. In addition to being comfortable around corpses, Siri actually converses with the dead during his dreams. These scenes come across more as a personification of Siri's natural intuition than as a supernatural element. Less explainable is Siri's journey to a northern Laos army base, where he becomes involved in the witchcraft and spirit world of the local tribespeople. Despite this minor detour into the implausible and a later, jarring change in viewpoint, this debut mystery, with its convincing and highly interesting portrayal of an exotic locale, marks the author as someone to watch.
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October 31, 2005
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