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By Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, August 2010 ($25)
ISBN-10: 1569476276
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-627-7

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

It is 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon, and the Communists have taken over power in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Each country is interpreting Communist doctrine through its own unique cultural viewpoint, and as Dr. Siri Paiboun , the official coroner of Laos, finds out, some take a much more extreme approach. As the story begins, Dr. Siri says "I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed to a lead pipe. I'd had something more traditional in mind..."

He is in a prison cell in Kampuchea, formerly known as Cambodia. He has been held in the miserable cell for days, maybe weeks. He has been beaten, tortured, starved, and he is not sure if the people he talks to are dead or alive, or if he, himself, is in this world or the next. Dr. Siri, whose body is inhabited by a 1,000 year old shaman, is accustomed to communing with the dead, but the amulet that protects him from evil spirits has been ripped away, exposing him to even more horror.

The next scene takes place weeks before, when the doctor gets involved with solving the brutal murders of three young women. The murder weapon is the same in each case: a fencing blade. The victims are found in a village abandoned by the Americans, who left behind all manner of luxury items, including a sauna and a school, complete with gymnasium. The Laotians took over the housing, and everything else they could use, but who would want a sauna in a tropical region? It makes a perfect place for a clandestine love affair, or a murder.

Dr. Siri's best friend Civilai has been given an assignment by the government and its Vietnamese "advisors." He is to travel to the capitol of Kampuchea on a diplomatic mission to help strengthen the ties with their Cambodian brothers. He asks Dr. Piri to go with him. It seems like an easy-enough job, and he'd like to see once again the lovely city of Phnom Penh and walk the boulevards he'd walked thirty years ago with his first wife. He starts to have some misgivings when he is warned not to go, both by a living person and by his long-dead mother, but it is too late to back out. The Chinese delegation that he and Civilai travel with on the first leg of the journey treat them like royalty, but when they reach Phnom Penh it is an entirely different story. They are taken to a miserable hotel by a young man who might as well be a robot, spouting Communist doctrine and apparently not hearing anything the two Laotians say. The hotel staff is less than accommodating. Everyone is dressed in black, no one smiles, even an old and once-dear Vietnamese friend Siri encounters is sullen and morose.

Not everyone has bought into this rigid new regime. A message is smuggled to Siri, and he slips away from his minder to meet with a group of Cambodians who are living on borrowed time. They reveal to the doctor the full horror of what has happened to their country: the millions of intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, students, who were taken to the countryside to work, or to be murdered by the Khmer Rouge. With all the people who might have managed to keep the country going either in exile or victims of the Killing Fields, armed thugs and boys with guns have taken control. The small band of survivors beg Dr. Siri to take their story back with him, to let the world know what is happening to their beloved country.

Dr. Siri manages to escape his minders to take in some fresh air and see the sights, not able to believe what he has been told. What he sees breaks his heart. The once-vibrant city is gone. The lovely French architecture has been destroyed or fallen into ruin. No one is on the streets, and there is a layer of gloom and fear everywhere he goes. He knows, then, that everything those wretched people had told him is true.

The story alternates between Vientiane and Phnom Penh. While Dr. Siri is suffering in prison, his friends and loved ones go on about their business. Inspector Phosy and the officials think they have identified the man who murdered the three young women. Dtui. Phosy's wife, confides to Daeng, Siri's wife, that she thinks her husband is having an affair. After a long dry spell, the rains come, turning the streets of the city into mudslides. Dr. Siri's assistant, Geung, who has Downs Syndrome, is upset that the hospital has hired a woman with the same condition. Rajid, the crazy naked Indian who refuses to speak to or even recognize his family, gets a little closer to regaining his sanity. Life goes on as usual, while far away Dr. Siri suffers and talks to the spirits and wonders if he will ever return to the people and the country that he loves. He has not been forgotten, however, and when his friends realize he is missing, presumed dead, they will move heaven and earth to find him.

This is the darkest of Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries, as the subject matter demands. It would be years before the outside world knew the full extent of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, and even then the enormous death toll was almost too much to believe. Through Dr. Siri's eyes we see the suffering at a personal level, and we hope against hope that no other human beings will ever have to go through that again.

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