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SLASH AND BURN
By Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, Dec. 2011 ($25.00)
Kindle eBook: $9.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Dr. Siri Paiboun, who came very, very close to joining his ancestors at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE), is back home in Vientiane, recovering from his physical and emotional scars under the watchful eye of his wife, Madame Daeng. It is July, 1978, and his boss, Judge Haeng, has finally decided to allow him the retirement he has been applying for every month since he was forced into the job of chief, and only, coroner of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos three years earlier.
Just two months to go, and the good doctor can hang up his scalpel and spend his days hanging around Daeng's noodle shop, evenings drinking whiskey, reminiscing about old times and discussing life with his old friend Civilai, and nights reading his illicit collection of French literature, when he isn't busy being Daeng's love-slave. Just two months. Anybody can stay out of trouble for just two months. The morgue is blissfully short of customers who died suspicious deaths, the spirits who were always bugging him have become quiet, and the biggest mystery he has to solve involves a class of school children who were being sent daily into some kind of mass shamanic hysteria. It takes him only minutes to discover the cause: a musical instrument with special powers. He confiscates the offending object and order is restored to the classroom.
His loyal nurse Dtui, who was deprived of going to Russia for further medical training by the unexpected results of an unplanned sleepover with her policeman friend, now husband, Phosy, is studying on her own. She has plans to take over the clinic when Dr. Siri steps down, and that's fine with the doctor. Mr. Geung, the morgue assistant and general man of all work, is prone to breaking out in a sappy grin when a certain young lady's name is mentioned. Life is good for Dr. Siri and his extended family. Just two more months...
Then one hot July morning when Siri and Pop, one of Madame Daeng's regular customers, are fighting a teaspoon-chopstick duel over who shall be her love-slave, a messenger appears with an urgent note that changes everything.
Judge Haeng has summoned him to the Ministry of Justice, and for once Siri decides to obey orders. When he arrives, he is ushered into a room full of enormous, sweaty Westerners. The Americans have returned, and they are on a mission, one which requires Dr. Siri's particular skills. In the summer of 1968, young fighter pilot Boyd Bowry took a fatal trip, in more ways than one, into a remote area of Laos, and his remains have never been found. Now evidence has come to light that suggests he may have survived the crash. The Americans have put pressure on the Laotian government to allow a team to search for him, dead or alive, and permission is grudgingly granted. Judge Haeng has hand-picked a list of the Laotians he wants on the mission, but Siri refuses to go unless he can choose his own people, including his wife. He envisions a nice little jungle holiday with his sweetheart and his friends, but that, of course, is not to be.
A motley group of Americans and Laotians set up a command center in a former hotel, initially distrusting and misunderstanding each other. With some help from teenage Peach, the daughter of American missionaries who speaks Laotian like an angel, and Auntie Bpoo, Siri's favorite transvestite fortune teller, who for some reason is fluent in English, communication is established and barriers break down. Liberal doses of Johnny Walker Red help ease the tension as well. Some unlikely friendships are made, but when the first body turns up it's apparent that one or more members of the group may have an agenda that's not part of the approved plan. The group is soon stranded in the jungle, as smoke from the clearing of nearby fields makes travel by road or air impossible. The Laotians and a couple of their American allies realize there is much more going on than the simple rescue of a lost airman, and that realization puts them in grave danger. With no way to call in reinforcements, they have to rely on their wits and special skills to stay alive.
Slash and burn is a technique that has been practiced by agricultural societies around the world for thousands of years. The vegetation is hacked down and burned, and the fields are left to regenerate. Slash and burn was also a technique used by the American military in Southeast Asia. The slashing and burning was done with bombs and chemicals, and some of the wounds left behind will never heal. While previous books in the series made occasional mention of the effect the Americans had on Laos during and just after the Vietnam War, SLASH AND BURN reveals in brutal detail the devastation resulting from U.S. military actions and the corruption that all too frequently accompanies warfare and follows in its wake.
As with the previous seven books in the series, SLASH AND BURN is a mixture of delightful whimsy, deadly danger, and serious topics handled deftly and even-handedly. This installment of the adventures of Dr. Siri and his merry band is both the most serious and the most tender. An unlikely person becomes a hero, bonds of friendship are forged in fire, and individual love stories are started or strengthened. There are also some of the funniest episodes ever. Just because Siri and crew are fighting for their lives, it doesn't mean they can't use the unique weapons they have on hand to mess with the bad guys.
The author had considered making LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE Dr. Siri's swansong, believing the doctor had said all he needed to say. Thankfully for Dr. Siri's many fans, he decided to let him live to fight another day. There was some speculation that SLASH AND BURN would be the end of the road for Dr. Siri and company, but the author has informed me that this is not the case. He is currently working on the ninth book. The publisher has changed, but the series will carry on. This is good news indeed for those of us who have come to love the world's most famous Laotian coroner and his nearest and dearest.
Mr. Cotterill has recently finished the second book in his new series, set in a small coastal village in contemporary Thailand. The first book, KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT, was released in the spring of 2011.
This book is available to pre-order from online booksellers. The scheduled release date is December 6, 2011.
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