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This book was huge fun to read and certainly quite different from the usual detective tales. The story opens with Dr Buagaew collecting a letter from the post office in Vientiane, the Laos capital. Nothing too strange about this scenario, one might think, until he inadvertently steps in front of a runaway truck. In a city where two cars passing at the same time would be called a traffic jam why did he not see or hear it?
It falls to our wonderful protagonist, Dr Siri Paiboun, a coroner - in fact the only coroner in Laos - to investigate. We soon learn the deceased was a retired blind dentist and his death was initially assumed, by all who witnessed it, to be due to some deep karmic debt; after all what are the odds of stepping in front of a driverless truck in a city with virtually no road traffic? But Dr Siri begins to question why a blind man should be collecting letters from the Bureau de Poste and when he discovers the letter is in fact a secret code written in invisible ink his suspicions are aroused. He believes he has stumbled upon a possible military coup and is joined by his old friends, Civilai a government official, Dtui his nurse assistant and Phosy a local police officer to investigate. We follow this eclectic cast of characters as they track clues through rural villages, across the Mekong River into a refugee camp in Thailand and back to the capital with one mystery leading to another.
Set in the late 1970's, Dr Siri is a slightly eccentric septuagenarian and as such is something of an unlikely hero. Educated in Paris, which explains his frequent sleuthing references to Maigret, he returned to Laos in the late 1930's as part of the Laos resistance against French rule. But he is no more content now with the government he fought to install, regularly complaining of the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the new socialist government observing wryly that "the government was starting to look like a depressingly unloved relative who had come to visit for the weekend and stayed for two years." I rather suspect though he is happiest when grumbling!
We learn early on that Dr Siri is host to the spirit of a thousand year old shaman and is also pursued by a demon, a Phibob, who is hell bent on destroying him. Combined with this he makes occasional visits to Aunt Bpoo, a transvestite fortune-teller whose cryptic declarations are pronounced from a banana-leaf mat on the street outside the Aeroflot office. We therefore have a blend of the old and new; an educated man of science who is also in touch with ancient beliefs and all things spiritual.
The use of language is delightfully witty and sardonic. Colin Cotterill's engaging plot and droll narrative blends beautifully a first-rate modern (well almost modern) mystery with the old ways of the spirit world and shamanism. Set against the backdrop of a country ruined by long term political upheavals with many inhabitants living in extreme poverty, Cotterill treats their individual stories sympathetically and with an understanding that comes from having lived and worked himself in South East Asia.
This is an amusing and unusual series of books. Anarchy and Old Dogs is in fact the fourth book in this series and I would love to read the first three but the way the characters are subtly developed means a veteran of the series would not be bored by going over old ground. Although this book doesn't have you sitting on the edge of your seat with excitement it is a great page turner with several investigational twists to keep the reader on their toes and some wonderfully humorous cameos that made me laugh out loud.
I read the A5 size hardback edition published by Quercus in October 2008, with a cover price of £12.99 and 258 pages of reading. It is currently available on Amazon for £6.49.
I thank thebookbag for sending me this book to review and there you can see an adaptation of this review.
©perfectly-p 2008 (aka perfectlypolished)