Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Who's Your Hero? Vote for Dr. Siri Paiboun ...

Colin Cotterill's seventh Laotian crime novel featuring unwilling coroner Siri Paiboun, LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE (2010), opens with three challenges at once: (1) Should Siri allow the ministry where he works to nominate him as "hero of the Revolution," for the sake of the prestige it could bring to his justice-oriented co-workers? (2) Who could have committed the murder that his friend Police Inspector Phosy needs to solve -- one involving a fencing sword thrust into a woman's heart? (3) Is Dr. Siri really writing (or thinking) a narrative of his own torture and imprisonment in a foreign land?

Readers of the earlier Dr. Siri books know that the generous and hard-working coroner (he was a doctor, but received the new assignment without being asked in advance, thanks to the Revolution...) has an odd affinity for ghosts of the dead. He's even been inhabited by a shaman. And because the dead talk to him, his treatment of their bodies and his attempts to help solve their murders are informed in strange ways. It's going to take some reading, though, to figure out why Siri is writing about his captivity -- is this too a haunting like the ghosts, or are we getting a taste of something about to happen in reality?

As always, Dr. Siri's life is complicated by his concern for his friends: how to reunite Crazy Rajid with his only remaining family member; how to find a girlfriend for Mr. Geung, who suffers from Down syndrome; whether Phosy is losing his marriage because he's got a girlfriend on the side. Moreover, Siri's other close friend, Civilai, who ought to have retired but is still being used by the government, has just been awarded (condemned to?) a free trip to Cambodia -- and Dr. Siri is required to go along. Will his late-life beloved wife Madame Daeng handle this well? What about Phosy's distraught wife Dtui, who is also the morgue nurse, working for Dr. Siri?

Disturbing crime scenes continue to distract Dr. Siri from these vital labors of friendship:
Chief Phoumi grabbed the flashlight from [Major] Dung and grimaced as he did so. A bandage protruded from beneath the cuff of the man's shirt. Phoumi used his other hand to pull the wooden handle. An overpowering stench appeared to push the door open from the inside. Siri felt a wave of warm air escape with it. Inside, the box was dark, lit feeblu by what light could squeeze through a small air vent high in one wall. But it created only eerie black shapes. Phoumi turned on the flashlight, and he and Siri stepped up to the doorway. The beam immediately picked out the naked body of a woman seated on a wooden bench. At first glance, she appeared to be skewered to the backrest by a thin metal pole that entered her body through the left breast. A trail of blood snaked down her lap to the floor.

But even with all this evidence in front of him, Siri has a feeling that the government men around him are weaving lies. And chasing down the truth here, as elsewhere, may be risky.

In many ways this is a langorous crime novel, attentive to details of family and friends and weather, as much as to murders and corpses. But it picks up speed as Siri and Civilai board an airplane for what turns out to be a frightening interlude -- and in the long run, the kind of hero that Dr. Siri may or may not be is very much the point of the book.

Since Siri's life exists on multiple planes, the suspense about whether he'll survive these events in a form that his wife can still hug haunts the book -- even though author Colin Cotterill has revealed in a recent Q&A (with crime author J. Sydney Jones) that there will be an eighth volume, Spook City. On the other hand, it's not clear whether the noted Soho Crime imprint will carry the next volume. I hope so -- Cotterill laid some of the groundwork for the welcome that novels like Lisa Brackmann's Rock Paper Tiger are receiving, and he's a great human being, too; see his web site, http://www.colincotterill.com,  for ways he's channeling assistance toward books for Laos. Long live Dr. Siri Paiboun and his friends!

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