The blank and then panicky looks back at me told me I was way, way wrong -- that not everyone knows about this enchanting crime series, and most of the people "my age" who first hear about a series set in Laos rummage desperately through their rusty memories of the 1960s and 1970s, trying to recall where Laos was in relation to the Vietnam war, and whether the conflict demolished Laos, and how guilty they should feel.
Stop right there! Yes, Laos and Cambodia are the west-side neighbors of Vietnam. But Colin Cotterill's series begins in 1975, when the Communists have taken over the country and 72-year-old surgeon Dr. Siri Paiboun is abruptly appointed national coroner. His adventures have little to do with wars and invasions, other than the very political ones often aimed at his impromptu morgue. And they have everything to do with the small group of people who gather around him, work with him, hold him in high esteem, love him ... including Nurse Dtui, and the woman who becomes Siri's wife, Madame Deng. The eight books THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE have celebrated the small triumphs of humor and integrity in a corrupt city, and the willingness of friends to help each other. As they resolve crimes that have brushed against the morgue operations, Dr. Siri and his friends also make the most of Lao life and food and tradition. And if Dr. Siri appears in some sense haunted by many of the spirits whose bodies have crossed paths with him, it's mostly an amused and tender sort of haunting.
Book nine, THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE (Soho Press), takes a startling new direction. Dr. Siri's official career is ending: He must accept retirement, which suddenly looks like a mixed blessing after all. Still he has a final assignment, one that includes a highly successful witch/fortuneteller. A bit unmoored by his life changes, he determinedly takes his wife, Madame Daeng, along with him to investigate the circumstances of the ba dong's supposed death and resurrection and the problems she is stirring up within the political leadership, some distance up river.
But there's another surprise coming. Early in the book, we learn this:
Madame Daeng was also owed a great deal by the old men in power. She had been in Vietiane only one year. In that time she had pursued and wed Dr. Siri, established the most popular noodle shop in the capital, and helped to solve a number of mysteries that had baffled many. The sixty-seven-year-old had skills far more reaching than the perfect combining of a few spices and herbs. Hers was a secret past that few in the capital knew of.During the course of Dr. Siri's investigative work, his wife records her own memoir, opening up the secrets of the years before her marriage. And just in time -- because a long-running threat from her own past is catching up with her. At issue: Will Dr. Siri be too consumed by his fascination for the witch, the "woman who wouldn't die," to notice the danger to his own wife?
Sweet, funny, and with a delightful quick pace and quirky details, this ninth Dr. Siri mystery captures the affections and loyalty that make life worthwhile -- in the Lao countryside and cities, or elsewhere. Series fans will enjoy appearances and disappearances by tranvestite Auntie Bpoo and Crazy Rajid, as well as the detective assistance of Siri's friend Comrade Civilai.
Will there be tenth Dr. Siri book? Hard to say -- the ending of this one doesn't make a sequel mandatory. And while exploring Colin Cotterill's blog is a fantastic adventure, there are no promises on it. But whether or not another appears, readers who haven't yet found their way to this series are in for a treat -- and the rest of us can always start reading the Dr. Siri books again from the beginning. It's one of the most enjoyable items on my list of things to do next winter!