Laotian dreams

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri novels
By CLEA SIMON  |  September 4, 2007

GALLOWS HUMOR: Like the heroes of John Burdett and Alexander McCall Smith, Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun is both humane and hilarious.

Anarchy and Old Dogs | by Colin Cotterill | Soho Press | 288 pages | $24
Dr. Siri Paiboun has a sense of proportion. When, in this fourth fictional outing, we meet up with the 73-year-old doctor, Siri (Laos’s national coroner) is in the morgue, rolling a deep-fried testicle between his thumb and forefinger and pondering “the Maker’s” lack of consideration. Although there’s no mystery in the dismembered body part before him (a jealous wife is responsible), he does have questions for the fates. And despite his own spiritual proclivities (the doctor’s wiry body houses the spirit of a 1000-year-old shaman), he is eager to disabuse his stout, able assistant, Nurse Dtui, of her new belief in a transvestite fortune teller. “It’s a load of rot,” he tells her. “The future’s a pimple on your nose. No matter how fast you run, you’ll never catch up with it.”

But Siri’s creator, Colin Cotterill, enjoys the ironies of fate, and so Siri’s fans will not be surprised when, within pages, the doctor is visiting the flamboyant fortune teller, a “luminous beacon” whose “white stomach hung over the elastic waist band of her leopard-skin leotards like a floe of ice oozing from the freezer of a cheap refrigerator.” Or when the fortune teller’s wildest prediction — that Siri will betray his country — comes true over the course of several adventures, much alcohol, and the intervention of various spirits.

In Cotterill’s latest, his hero is in fine form. A cross between John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Bangkok 8, et al.) and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Siri is both humane and hilarious. Rooted in a spiritually open culture, like Jitpleecheep, he also shares Ramotswe’s gentle decency; he’s a spirited survivor, cheerful even when dealing with an increasingly ineffective bureaucracy. It’s 1977 in Anarchy and Old Dogs, and life in Laos has not improved since the series started with 2004’s The Coroner’s Lunch, shortly after the 1975 Communist takeover. “The government was starting to look like a depressingly unloved relative who’d come to visit for the weekend and stayed for two years,” notes the whimsical third-person narrator (who sounds suspiciously like Siri). But over the past books, Siri has learned to accept his government-mandated job, to work around shortages of everything from books to lab supplies, and even to welcome his shaman spirit. Along the way, he has also figured out how to solve crimes, often using hints provided by the dead. When the morgue receives a blind man’s corpse with a coded letter in its pocket, Siri rallies his troops to investigate.

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