Sunday, May 17, 2015

Colin Cotterill's 10th Dr. Siri Paibun Mystery, SIX AND A HALF DEADLY SINS

Ever notice how hard it can be to relax, as summer arrives? In theory, it's playtime, and vacation time, and let's-go-the-beach time ... but in practice, it's also yard-care season, clean-out-the-closet time, give rides to family members no longer in school time, and time to learn new recipes for the grill.

That's why it is entirely necessary to grab the newest Colin Cotterill mystery, the tenth in the Laos-based series featuring the aging Dr Siri Paibun and his wise and tough wife, Madame Daeng. Dr. Siri is officially retired now, and the office where he's exhibited his government-mandated coroner's skills is closed. But a package has arrived, and he's puzzling over its contents with his friend Comrade Civilai Songsawat -- also retired, at least in theory. In fact, the pair should be just "two old men sitting on a log" beside the Mekhong River, taking things easy. But the package contained a traditional Lao skirt, or pha sin, with a severed finger sewn into the hem, which really can't be ignored easily.
"Do you suppose it might have belonged to the weaver?" asked Civilai. "Some loom accident?"

"What?" said Siri. "You mean she was so engrossed in her skirt-making that she didn't notice she'd sewn her own finger into the hem? Got home that evening, and her husband says, 'Hey, where's your finger?' And she looks down to find it gone and says, 'Hm. I must have inadvertently sewn it into one of the skirts'?"
Well, no. Obviously. And as Civilai reminds to his friend, "Sarcasm is like throwing a stick at your enemy when you've run out of bullets."

Fortunately, Dr. Siri's wife, Madame Daeng, along with her sometimes mysterious past and her esteemed skills in noodles, knows something about these traditional weavings, and can point the two men north. In fact, she even decides to travel with her husband, which turns out to be a very wise choice.

The journey to investigate the sin, however, is at least as complicated as the puzzle of the finger in the skirt hem. In fact, a map at the front of the mystery, before the tale begins, gives fair warning. Siri -- and who knows who else, at this point? -- is headed for a scenic and politically uncomfortable tour of northern Laos. Expect trouble ahead, because Cotterill has already said bluntly in the first paragraph that this season (December 1978) is also the time when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, a neighbor of Laos. If you're good at geography, or lived through the Vietnam war, you know China is involved in all these tilting power struggles, too. And Dr. Siri has never become a model citizen under the Chinese-led rule of his little nation anyway. Even with Madame Daeng at his side, he's sure to get into trouble.

I should have guessed from the chapter titles, but it took me a while to connect the book title with the goings-on (after all, I was watching for why it wasn't "seven deadly sins," a true red herring). To be honest, for a while, I wasn't trying to figure out things -- Cotterill's storytelling is so fluid and his characters' interactions are so entertaining that I just gave in, following the story and not trying to solve the crime, eager for the next twist of the plot.

Now look back at the start of this review -- the part about not managing to relax in the season that's supposed to be all about relaxing. This is the reason it's essential to pick up a copy of Cotterill's SIX AND A HALF DEADLY SINS. It's the fun part of the season, and it will remind you of why you wanted to read an enjoyable book (instead of just a challenging one, or one on the list of cultural must-reads, or any of that). This is the book that makes reading into a summer pleasure again!

It's from Soho Crime (of course!) and feels like a true sibling to Tim Hallinan's modern-day Thailand series (warmth and humor), a cousin to Martin Limón's Korean ones (friends facing risks together), and an uncle to Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands investigations (paying attention to the politics will help you solve the case at about the same time that the protagonist) -- all of them Soho series.

But if you can only pick one to start your vacation (or pretend you can have one!), this is the one. For extra fun, visit Cotterill's website, too, and jump through the hoops of his graphic jests, en route to a pithy description of his newest book here.

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