This novel is set in Laos in 1976, shortly after the communist group Pathet Lao took political power, abolished the monarchy and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The narrative centres on Dr Siri Paiboun, who joined the communists because of his love for a woman rather than because of political conviction, worked with the group during its long insurgency and, at the age of 72 and longing for a quite retirement, is given the job of being Laos’ chief - and only - coroner. Through his work in this role, Dr Siri investigates deaths which aren’t what they seem to be and comes to understand his own disturbing “gift”: Dr Siri sees the spirits of the dead.
In Dr Siri Paiboun, Cotterill has created a memorable character. He is described as one of the “founding fathers of cynicism” and that cynicism, a self-deprecating sense of humour and a lively appreciation of the ridiculous bring much humour to the narrative. The supporting characters are also well-drawn and the setting is both exotic and interesting. Indeed, it would be almost worth reading the novel just for the information Cotterill imparts about the political and social situation in Laos in the mid-1970s. This is done with a very light touch; there is nothing awkward about the way in which the narrative is located in its place and time.
The plot is interesting enough without being compelling, although it’s fair to say that the plot is not the real reason to read the book. The supernatural element – that is, Dr Siri’s ability to see the spirits of the dead – is quite well done. I was not entirely persuaded by it, but given that it has its roots in Lao folk religion it’s not an unreasonable device for Cotterill to use. This was a 3-1/2 star read, rounded up to 4 stars because of my love for the person who gave me the book.
I own an edition of the novel which was published and printed in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.* It was given to me about three years ago, a gift from a dear colleague and friend who bought it in Laos, while she was there on holidays. While my friend and I shared a love of crime fiction and often gave or lent each other books, I didn’t get around to reading the novel immediately. Almost a year ago my friend died very suddenly. Since then I’ve seen her gift on my bookshelf and haven’t been able to pick it up for fear that reading it would make me miss her too much. Well, it has made me miss her, but I’m so glad that I have this book, a physical memento of our friendship and our shared love of crime fiction. Vale, Agnes!
*The industry in Laos could do with some quality control. My copy of the book is missing three pages. I initially thought that either I had missed something or that there was a continuity error in the writing. It took me a few minutes to realise that the book went from page 142 to page 145. My ability to understand the plot did not seem to be adversely affected by the missing pages.