Thursday, December 01, 2011

Colin Cotterill, SLASH AND BURN -- the Eighth Dr. Siri Mystery

It's the first of December, and it's going to be a great month for new mysteries. Top on my list for sheer enjoyment is the eighth "Dr. Siri" mystery from Colin Cotterill, SLASH AND BURN, releasing December 6 (yes, pre-order it now, or add it to your list). All through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I carried my copy around with me, sinking into any handy armchair (between kitchen tasks) to dip into this latest Laos crime novel. I'm afraid the title had my visiting relatives worried about me ... it's a bit deceptive, since this is far from a slasher novel, honest! The slashing and burning refers to the agricultural technique that surrounds 74-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun and his wife, and their friends, at a site in northern Laos where they're assisting the search for a downed U.S. helicopter pilot. Alive, or not? And what destroyed the helicopter and the surrounding jungle?

Poor Dr. Siri. At his age, he should be retiring. Actually, he already did once, but his country pulled him back into service, running the nation's only working morgue. But finally his latest retirement request has been accepted, so it's quite unexpected that his arch-enemy, Judge Haeng, asks him to supervise the coroner's portion of the ongoing search. A moment of acute perception -- realizing how badly the Party-oriented judge needs him for this one -- leads Dr. Siri to negotiate what ought to be a wildly cheerful final outing, with his friends in tow. Here, for example, is the coroner's introduction of his wife, as the MIA task force of Lao and American investigators and translators gets going:
"Next," said Siri, "a legend in the underground resistance forces against the French, a spy of many faces, never discovered, a woman with an intellect so high that she married me" -- riding the groans -- "and the maker of the best noodles on this and probably every other planet, I present you, Madame Daeng."
Still, there are signs that all isn't as simple or sweet as it might be. For one thing, the local transvestite fortuneteller, Auntie Bpoo, has very seriously predicted that Siri will die before retirement. Die very soon, for that matter. So Auntie Bpoo has tagged along for the investigation. For another, people on the joint investigative task force are dying -- in ways that are clearly intentional, not accidental.

As the smoke surrounding the task force gets thicker, the landscape more treacherous, and the mix of Lao and American forces more unexpected, Siri tangles with the forces that have haunted him through his morgue-related career: spirits of the dead. What are they trying to tell him? Does the answer have any bearing on the missing American, or the death foretold for Dr. Siri?

This is a delightful classic mystery, imbued with enough exotic flavors of custom and language to make it deliciously distracting. It will last a lot longer than the Thanksgiving desserts ... and be even more fun.

Oh, one more bit of good news: If you haven't read the earlier Dr. Siri books, you'll still enjoy this one almost as much. But if you had a chance to savor Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, the seventh in the series, you'll feel like your feast is even better.

Will there be another Dr. Siri book? Cotterill has left room for one, twisting Dr. Siri's life madly. But he's also started another series, featuring Jimm Juree (stories of the feisty Thai lady journalist began last summer), so ... who knows? See what you can figure from the author's enjoyable website. And hats off to Soho Crime, for bringing us this one.

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