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* Now available in paperback format.


By Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, August 2010 ($14)
ISBN-10: 1569476543
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-654-3

Soho, August 2009 ($24)
ISBN-10: 1569475563
ISBN-13: 978-1569475560

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

It is 1978, and the citizens of Laos are struggling as best they can under the oppressive Communist regime. There is too little food and too much bureaucracy, and those who can, continue to flee to refugee camps in Thailand, just across the Mekong River. As the story begins, the narrator reports that there are only two completely happy men in the country. One is Dr. Siri Paiboun, who was dragged out of retirement to become the official national coroner, and the other is a serial bride killer. Siri is happy because his country needs him, allowing him to get away with disobeying certain rules such as having only one official home, with no extra tenants allowed. He is quite happily cohabitating with his wife, a radical freedom fighter he'd loved long ago and found again, transformed into a master noodle chef. His "official" home is filled with an assortment of misfits he's providing shelter to, and he refuses to let a tiny government official change his arrangements. He mostly enjoys his job, and is very fond of his staff, the very pregnant nurse Dtui and Geung, a man with Downs' Syndrome who has useful skills and a fierce loyalty to his boss and coworkers.

One morning, as Dr. Siri is preparing to park his motorbike in his assigned place, he finds it taken by a dog. Not just any dog, his former pet, now a ghost - Dr. Siri has close ties with the spirit world, so that's not too unusual. Seeing his old pal this way tells him this will not be an ordinary day. This is the day when the work of the two happiest men in Laos will come together in a most unhappy way.

The serial killer is happy because he has a good job that lets him spend several days at a time in small towns and villages, and a truck to get him there. This allows him to pursue his mission in life: to seek out the most pure, beautiful, virginal young woman in the area, woo and win her, marry her and murder her. One of his victims, not the first, not the last, has just turned up on Dr. Siri's autopsy table. Her beauty has not been marred, but she has been violated in a manner so horrible that Dtui gets hysterical. Dr. Siri does not show his anger and sorrow, but he swears to his staff and to the girl that he will find the man responsible.

Communication under the new regime is difficult, fraught with red tape and incompetence, but Dr. Siri has connections. With help from his friends in the police force, various government agencies, and helpful civilians, he finds out who the victim is. He also learns that there have been similar cases all over the country during a period of several years. When the doctor figures out where the next crime is likely to occur, he risks all to stop the madman from taking another innocent life.

Each installment in this series is better than the last. The characters are believable, and, in the case of Dr. Siri and his crew, very endearing. Although Laos, its history and culture is exotic and unfamiliar to most Westerners, the experiences, feelings and behavior of the characters is universal. This is one fine series.

This review is based on the hardcover edition.

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