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By Colin Cotterrill

Soho, 2007 ($23.00)
ISBN- 10: 0676979513
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-463-1

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

It is 1977, two years after the forming of the Democratic Republic of Laos. The country’s colonial elegance is crumbling, and every aspect of life is bogged down in endless piles of red tape. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the only coroner in Laos, sometimes flaunts the rules, but because of his skills and his decades-long membership in the Communist Party, he is allowed some leeway.

Traffic is a rarity in the city, and when a runaway truck hits a blind dentist (retired) who was crossing the street after collecting his mail, the authorities want to write it off as bad karma. Dr. Siri suspects otherwise. The widow is by no means in mourning, and she tells the doctor that the odd letter he found in her husband’s pocket is just part of an ongoing chess game he’s been playing with a friend in another town. Dr. Siri, his nurse Dtui, policeman Phosy and his friend Civilai put their heads together and figure out the letter is in code, and that it’s possible some disenchanted segment of the populace is planning a coup.

As usual with this series, there are a number of entertaining subplots. When his nurse Dtui’s mother, gravely ill for a long time, finally dies, Dtui throws a wake, Laotian-style, at the monastery. Everyone gets very drunk. There are subtle, and not-so subtle, traces of humor throughout this event, and the conversations Dtui, Siri, and Civilai have during the night of the wake will make you smile. Dr. Siri’s penchant for following the detective model of the fictional Inspector Maigret is endearingly charming as well.

Dtui introduces him to her spiritual adviser, one of the most colorful characters yet. Dr. Siri, no stranger to the supernatural (he talks to dead people) expects the transsexual Auntie Bpoo to be nothing more than a colorful fraud, but after talking to her/him, he finds that Auntie actually has some psychic talent. As a man who hosts a one thousand year old shaman, he is happy to find a kindred spirit, but Auntie doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Is she the real thing or not? We’ll find out, if the prediction she reluctantly gives him comes true in the next book.

When Dr. Siri goes south to investigate the bathtub electrocution of a senior party member, he is reunited with Madame Daeng, a friend from the old days when she, he, and his wife were young and fiery members of the Free Laos Movement. She was a great cook and knew how to toss the occasional hand grenade. Meeting her again brings back many memories of his younger years, and gives the reader some insight into the reasons for some of his life choices.

A grieving mother, hearing of Dr. Siri’s ability to commune with the dead -- his "knowledge of dead bodies" -- pleads with him to find out why her son, Sing, an excellent swimmer, drowned. He understands her pain, and helps her. By bringing peace to the boy’s mother and to a little girl who was Sing’s best friend, he feels a little peace himself. When he bemoans his inability to fix any of the big problems in his country, Madame Daeng tells him that he should go for the small problems and do the best that he can, and he makes it his mantra.

Dtui and Phosy have some adventures of their own, going undercover to a Laotian refugee camp across the river in Thailand, pretending to be a married couple to try to find out more about the coup. They get more than they bargained for, not all of it bad.

By story’s end, Dr. Sirsi has learned some uncomfortable truths, had a crisis of conscience, gotten a couple of major shocks, and maybe, just maybe, found true love. This is a wonderful series, charming and informative about a place and a time few of us know about.

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