Sunday, March 31, 2013

Go Global: Colin Cotterill's Laos Mysteries -- Dr. Siri #9

Chatting at a gathering last week about mysteries, I happily rambled from the States to Britain to Ireland and the others in the conversation jumped to Scandinavian crime fiction, then asked what else to read for enjoyment. I mentioned Donna Leon's Venetian series, where I believe the warm, smart, engaged relationship between Commissariao Guido Brunetti and his professor wife Paola creates series-long fans. To the nodding half smiles across the table, I then added, "Just like Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries set in Laos."

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!

Spring Diversion: Poetry for Those Who Rise (Kevin Goodan, Kimberly Burwick, Martín Espada)

"Well, there’s always the search for things beyond the world. Often times I feel that maybe God is here, he’s just put down in shorthand and we have to capture little pieces of him or his language, which is the natural world." Kevin Goodan to Kimberly Burwick, in an interview in Rain Taxi, 2008
If neither Easter nor Passover can drive us at this time of year to the big questions -- life, love, loss, justice, grief, heaven, hell -- the season for us northerners (Global North, or American North) should do so: Green blades of grass sneak forward under the brown thatch of last year's winter-dulled fields, old crusts of snow glitter with ice crystals and are speckled with "snow fleas" hopping, and the miracle of daffodils is something that's already old in New Jersey but still uncertain here in the mountains.

When I want to remember that G-d is much stranger and larger than a worship service, I can walk the ridges of land -- or I can pick up any work of poetry by Kevin Goodan. His latest collection, UPPER LEVEL DISTURBANCES, reached publication long after he'd left New England and found a new home in Idaho. Within driving distance of the Montana of his birth and childhood, and nestled within the landscape where he fought forest fires for a decade, he writes in these poems of fire, barrenness, and the greasy, strenuous effort of work in a slaughterhouse, as well as the sheep farm he tended while in New England. He opens these darknesses to reveal the songs of lightning and of prairie fires, of aching muscles and of grief.

Yet Goodan is our Gerald Manley Hopkins, bound in a call-and-response with the higher power and the rituals, traditions, and passions of the Church. In my favorite sequence in this collection, "Showings," Goodan begins with, "I open my eyes and taste God. / A sky blue through bare trees / Then birds. The spirit moves /Surely but not upwards. / I make a fire but no words come --" and resolves this passage with, "As I am my own offering / When the unsayable is lodged in the throat."

Much later in the collection, in "Sacerdotes Domini," he couples fire, barn, and hawk, building toward "The black earth without mercy. / I wipe ash from my mouth, squint as if / I know exactly where I'm going." Within the lines, and under the impact of the poems accumulating, the disciplined questioning by this powerful poet draws me into his vision of "the redemptive dark."

I marvel at the interview of Goodan that Kimberly Burwick provided in Rain Taxi, as excerpted at the head of this post. Not only is Burwick an award-winning poet herself -- she, like Goodan, has drawn strength and illumination for her writing while living in vastly different parts of America: Wisconsin, Los Angeles, New England, and now Idaho. She is married to Goodan, which makes the hunt for multiple meanings in her poems -- and his -- especially fascinating in terms of pronouns. When Goodan writes "you," about 85 percent of the time I think he's talking to that Higher Power, and maybe 5 percent of the time he's overlapping or pointing toward Burwick within the "you." In Burwick's work, I read the "you" as being often directed toward Goodan, or toward the body of attentiveness that he carries.

Yet this is only a result of the knowledge that the two are connected -- clearly, Burwick's poems speak an investigative voice far different from his, and with less obvious losses and darknesses. In HORSES IN THE CATHEDRAL she enfolds the quintessential Western partner to human life, the horse, within her identification of a separate pathway into the quest, the search, the long walk where flowers and cardinals splash bright, aggressive hope. In "The Anxious Ones," she confesses, "I want to be alone, and not." As she moves the short yet rich poem through the question of one's "place in the world," she weaves back to her own core: "I breath for a long time / with pasture in my breath, / my voice weeds and undergrowth, / I am not for vineyards." And in "Desire for Collapse," where the juniper of the opening could be either in New England or in Montana, I find the necessary contrast of breaking and bending, followed by, "I touch birds mid-breath to know the motion / of the instant as deer know sighting. / Dusty roots and the law of falling bodies / appear suddenly as flesh without path."

For a more story-driven and justice-demanding read, I recommend highly the collection THE TROUBLE BALL by Martín Espada. (Apologies to the poet and publisher; I meant to review this in early September, when it was released, but life got in the way.) "The Trouble Ball" is a reference to a baseball pitch by Satchel Paige, who'd already demonstrated fantastic action and theory while playing in Puerto Rico. Espada's father Frank as a child went to a ball game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, expecting to see this magnificent player, and after waiting and waiting for Satchel Page, says the poem: "Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players? / No los dejan, his father softly said. They don't let them play here." Although Frank Espada would himself become a ballplayer, this piercing awareness of the color line threw a "trouble ball" into the American life of the family. Martín Espada, a father himself, takes the material as more of the rich clay from which he shapes his challenges to America today.

The collection is elegiac in the most exhilarating of ways, probing the lives of "truth-tellers" who make a difference; in the poem "Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers," for Jack Agüeros, Espada recounts being a child headed for a tonsillectomy, bragging about all the ice cream he's be given, like that provided by "Johnny the ice-cream man, / who allegedly sold heroin the color of vanilla / from the same window" of his truck. But when "Jack the Truth-Teller" (which is, indeed, a kind of Giant Killer) visits the projects, herding real camels and writing "sonnets of the jail cell / and the racetrack and the boxing ring," and pushing change into place, Jack tells the small boy what will really happen: "Ay bendito cachifrito Puerto Rico. / That's gonna hurt." And of course -- it does. "Blessed be the Truth-Tellers," Espada concludes, "for they shall have all the ice cream they want."

Another of my favorites in this collection is "The Day We Buried You in the Park," for Sandy Taylor. A conspiracy of family and friends to deposit Taylor's remains in the Poets' Park becomes a tangle of grief and risk, concluded with three remaining scoops of ashes that, the poem asserts, the poet took home in "a coffee can: Chock full o' Nuts, the Heavenly Coffee," on the container. "At your desk there was bad coffee and good poetry, / but no heaven, so I will look for you under my bootsoles, / walking through the world, soaking up the ghosts wherever I may go."

For more insight into this complex and articulate story-teller poet, there's a well-appointed website here: Most of all, though, as before, I recommend attending one of Espada's readings -- he brings with him a vigor, music, and assertion on the part of both goodness and justice that makes our losses and pain worth remembering and honoring.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Mysteries for Keeping or Giving: 2 -- Sara J. Henry, Charles Todd

This weekend the snow is vanishing rapidly, quite a feat considering how long it's been in place on this northern ridge. Where the sunshine heats the ground, mud lingers -- because under it is a still-frozen boundary. But this too shall pass; no regrets about seeing the end of winter.

Still, I was glad it was snowing while I read Sara J. Henry's 2013 mystery, A COLD AND LONELY PLACE. Set in the Adirondacks in midwinter -- at the time of the Winter Carnival, when an ice palace is erected and athletic competions and merry parties enliven the area around Saranac Lake.

Here, freelance writer Troy Chance, reporting for the local paper, is on the scene when a body is found in the ice of the lake. It's a man she knows, and the quick conclusion is that he must have fallen through the ice when it was still fragile, and drowned in the muscle-numbing water just under the surface. That's a grim and gruesome way to die, and of course, it could have been an accident, perhaps with some malice setting it into motion.

Yet Troy keeps discovering puzzles about prep-school grad Troy Winslow, and his death becomes an increasing obsession for her. Fortunately, her editor at the paper gives her leeway to dig into the life story of this elegant young man. Not so good, though, is the tangle of relationships and attitudes that first drags one of her housemates into police attention, then opens up the social fractures in the town, and finally takes Troy herself into danger.

This is Henry's second mystery, a sequel to Learning to Swim. Although the emotions that enmesh Troy are less compelling than in the first book, they come across as realistic and deeply felt -- and position this unwilling but skillful sleuth for further adventures. I'll be reading more.

Another winter treat I gave to myself was the time to snuggle up around hot tea and buttered biscuits with the 2011 offering from "Charles Todd," A BITTER TRUTH. Todd, which is the pen name of a son-and-mother writing team, provides two engrossing series -- one set after World War I yet rooted in its disasters and pain, and the other, this series, set during the war and featuring battlefield nurse  Bess Crawford. A BITTER TRUTH is, I think, the best yet in this series (it's the third): The authors have escaped from the sometimes stilted feminine voice they started with, and Bess's reactions now are savvy, shrewd, and courageous. Yes, her life is shaped by being a woman at a time when even nursing could be seen as a betrayal of the role of the upper-class young woman. But her reactions to discovering a stranded and perhaps abused young woman huddled on the London doorstep of the house where Bess rents a room, and her determination in straightening out the woman's convoluted family drama tinged with wartime paranoia, are crisply courageous. Bess doesn't fumble or flinch; she probes, prods, and processes the information and actions around her. A top-notch sleuth, she is compelled to investigate by the same urge that takes her back to the battlefield: People need her insight, her skills, and her decisiveness.

The Todds endow the book with solid research and a multilayered, rich view of both the English social structure and the forces at play in the Great War. A great read, and worth keeping on the shelf for next winter as well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ellen Larson Creates Epic Mystery: IN RETROSPECT

Unless you've carefully sorted through both the awards lists (her story "When the Apricots Bloom" was a Barry Award finalist) and the publishing news (she's the editor for the new "young adult" imprint from Poisoned Pen Press, the Poisoned Pencil), or been edited by her already (25 years of substantive editing!), you may not have crossed paths with Ellen Larson.

We'll all have the chance to enjoy her work later this year, when her own mystery IN RETROSPECT reaches publication from Five Star in November. But Larson goes well beyond crafting a mystery -- a time-travel murder mystery! -- by drawing from powerful science fiction traditions and breaking ground under conditions firmly her own. We're excited to welcome her here for a thoughtful journey into her world. (Make sure you read all the way to the end, for more news and a way to participate!)

Me, Myself, and the Other

I first heard about the Other as a character type in fiction as a kid in college, studying comparative literature and learning how to write. At first I thought it was strange that characters who were by definition alienated from society would work in a medium that depends so much on reader identification. Until, of course, I realized how many readers identify with the sense of alienation. Me included.

At thirty-three, my sense of Otherness in combination with my love of science fiction led me to the conclusion that I should live on Mars, where clearly I would feel more at home. The urge turned out to be surprisingly inescapable, so I left my beloved upstate New York home, eventually landing in Cairo, Egypt. Which was as close as I could get to Mars.

In Cairo I was, of course, still the Other. With my clothing, my culture, my experiences, my eye color, my goals in life I was never going to be confused as an average member of Egyptian society. Which turned out to be unexpectedly liberating, because no one even bothered to try to get me to conform (a main source of conflict for fictional and real Others). I was a different type of Other, and it was wonderful. The society I had been so at odds with was far away, so the sense of alienation disappeared. Fifteen invaluable years in Egypt (shokran, Misreen) allowed me to develop a life-long passion for differences, for Otherness, because it allowed me to understand that underneath our differences, we are all the Same.

Because of my real-life experiences, my writing often features societies that are not my own. Writing science fiction allows me to imagine a society that is out of my own time, one that provides the background I need to tell the story I want to tell. My personal approach as a writer involves getting rid of whatever prejudices and limitations present my own society that I don’t want to be bothered by, so that I can free up my protagonist to battle what I perceive to be those underlying and universal challenges of being human. Which is why I’m not so interested in writing the kind of science fiction that focuses on alien beings and intergalactic conflicts.

My upcoming science fiction murder mystery, IN RETROSPECT (Nov. 2013 Five Star - Gale Cengage), is set in post-apocalyptic Turkey far in the future. For this book I not only changed societal norms, but I literally sank North America and twisted Europe into a pretzel. I intermingled such races and cultures that remained and built a new one. I changed the climate. Thus the literary decks are clear to say anything about any topic I wish, without the need to bow to history or transient social conventions. So I built a world with a simple set of political norms; where science is advanced beyond our 21st century experience; and where certain young women of petite stature can time travel.

Merit, my protagonist, is a 30th century Other. With her working-class roots, she feels inferior and out-of-place when, as a child, she is chosen to be attuned for time travel. Even though she succeeds in becoming an elite Retrospector, she overcompensates for her underlying sense of inadequacy and becomes arrogance. As the book begins, Merit is most assuredly alienated—from her enemies, the Rasakans, for whom she is forced to work, and from her own people, the Oku, who, exhausted by the war they lost, just want to find a way to peacefully reconstruct their lives. But Merit cannot forget and she will not conform. So she exists, ghost-like on the fringes of society—until she is faced with the dilemma of having to investigate the murder of the Oku general who surrendered to the Rasakans; a murder she would gladly have committed herself. 
Temporary cover image

Beth adds: I am already haunted by Merit, from an advance read of Ellen Larson's book. Her choice of concept artist Mike Sissons for the book trailer ... well, you've got to see it. And you can!  Larson is currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the making of the book trailer for IN RETROSPECT. Take a look at this exciting project -- there's still time to take part, too.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


I have a generous stack of recent and upcoming mysteries/crime fiction read, about to get reviewed -- but before I launch into those, here's a quick mention of Arthur Upfield. Dave and I have always been a little surprised at how few mystery fans know the name of this Australian author whose series featuring the Bush-wise Napoleon Bonaparte reached publication during the time when Agatha Christie's books were also being published. But ... that may be changing. We've noticed four orders in the past two weeks for Arthur Upfield books from the Kingdom Books shelves.

So, here's a link to a piece we provided on Upfield's mysteries, as well as a handful of other authors we think you'll enjoy if you're already reading the "Bony" books:

And we do still have two copies of THE SPIRIT OF AUSTRALIA, the ultimate bibliographer's compilation on Upfield and his books—click here.

Let us know what you think as you dig into this intriguing series.