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CURSE OF THE POGO STICK
By Colin Cotterill
Soho, 2008 ($24.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Dr. Siri Paiboun, the official coroner of Laos, is away from his office attending yet another boring Communist propaganda conference. Party officials decide this is a good time to send in the auditors to go over his paperwork, and the two unlucky men who got the assignment are sorting through countless pages of indecipherable forms and bringing disruption to the morgue. To add to the problem, a rush job has come in. Because the corpse is a military officer, the powers that be canít wait for the return of Dr. Siri, and are bringing in another doctor to do the autopsy. To add even more to the problem, the corpse is frozen solid. The hulking Russian behemoth that replaced the completely functional French refrigeration unit is working too well. The office nurse, Dtui, and Dr. Siriís fiancťe, Madame Daeng, are trying various methods to thaw out the body before the doctor gets there, but it turns out to be a moot point when Dtui spots something unusual about the body and stops a potential catastrophe. The two ladies are no fools -- they realize the unpleasant surprise was meant for their dear Dr. Siri, and it soon becomes evident that the villain has more tricks to play.
While they and Dtuiís policeman husband Phosey go on the trail of the would-be assassin, Siri and his obnoxious boss, Judge Haeng, are kidnapped by a band of rebel Hmong tribesmen. These Hmong are not bandits, just the remnants of a troubled village who need the skills of a shaman -- one shaman in particular, the thousand-year-old Yeh Ming, who currently resides within Dr. Siri. Siri, who may himself have Hmong ancestry, does what he can to help them.
This series is rarely violent, and has plenty of gentle, sweet humor. Each book contains a message or lesson about the culture of Laos during the early years of Communist rule, and this is one of the most serious. The Hmong people have been pushed from place to place through their history, and forced to take sides in battles not their own. The Chinese and French forced them to grow opium. During World War II, some sided with the Japanese, others with the French. In the Viet Nam War, their choices were the Communists or the Americans. After the cease fire in 1975, they were left to their own devices. Some became bandits, some became guerilla fighters against other Hmong tribes, and some crossed over to Thailand, hoping to find peace there or in other countries. A number of those who worked for our military have been given asylum in the U.S., with many settling in Minnesota, but we could have done better by them.
Cotterill never preaches or moralizes, just tells it how it is, or was. His books always leave me smiling, and waiting eagerly for the next one. For those who remember the ending of the previous book, Anarchy and Old Dogs, Auntie Bpoo, the transvestite fortune teller, fortold that Dr. Sirsi would marry Madame Daeng, and that the happy couple would have two bouncing baby boys by the New Year. Does this prophecy come true? The newlyweds are no spring chickens, but stranger things have been known to happen in Dr. Siriís world... And what about the pogo stick, one might ask? Yes, there is indeed a pogo stick, and never has such an innocent toy caused more trouble than this one.
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