Saturday, December 21, 2019

Going Global from 2019: In Laos with Colin Cotterill, in South Africa with Tim Willocks

International mysteries abound now, and make up the second best way to get to know another location and culture -- the first best, of course, being a visit there in person. For those of us staying home this season, thank goodness for Colin Cotterill!

Cotterill's Siri Paiboun series keeps getting more off-beat and more fun, as his Laotian national coroner (circa 1980) ages. Dr. Siri in this 14th book is now 76, and his physical challenges are small compared to his spiritual ones, since he is possessed by a thousand-year-old shaman and finds the other world often intruding into his practical life of would-be retirement and comfortable meals with his noodle-making wife and their friends.

THE SECOND BIGGEST NOTHING refers to a quip of John Kerry's in the past, calling the Vietnam war "the Biggest Nothing in history." Then what was the overlapping war in Laos and Cambodia? To Dr. Siri, obviously it must have been the second biggest nothing! But a hangover from those days is the unresolved anger in some of the survivors, and now there's a major death threat in Dr. Siri's life as a revenge move. Spurring him to frantic action and passionate unraveling of his war-era actions is the size of the threat, which is directed at his family and friends as well.

Siri's police inspector buddy Phosy reminds him to start with the repetitive nature of the threat itself:
"I'm guessing that when he made that threat initially you would have sensed that it was more than just words. You would have seen him as capable of following through with it. It would have frightened you. For some time you would have been looking over your shoulder. On how many occasions have you experienced that kind of fear in your life?"

All eyes turned to Siri. He looked up at the lamp and seemed to be rewinding through his seventy-six years. He sniffed when he reached the end.

"Twice," he said. ... "Better make it three times," said Siri. "Just to be sure. .. I'm not given to panic, but I confess to missing a few heartbeats on those occasions."
As Dr. Siri spins out his personal history for his friends, he reveals the history of his country's war experience at the same time.

Brace for some shudders, as well as the sweet entertainment that Cotterill always provides, full of love of family and friends and efforts to set things right ... that sometimes go awry. A fun read, and one of the most enjoyable mysteries of 2019. From Soho Press, and easily available through orders at local bookstores, as well as online.

* * *

The development of noir within the mysteries genre has often reflected on the term's roots in "film noir" and brought Los Angeles, New York, and many another city with vast socioeconomic inequality into dark fiction. It's also become a home for crime fiction that's rooted in historic injustice and bitterness, as in the Irish noir of Stuart Neville, or even landscapes that produce darkness for large parts of the year, such as the Arctic and Scandinavia.

But for crime fiction where violence is a steel-strong cultural strand, South Africa repeatedly hosts a driven darkness. The names of the authors may not be common in full-page ads in review magazines, but their power is fierce and their writing can shatter the everyday: I'm thinking of Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Paul Hardisty, James McClure.

And, new to me this year: Tim Willocks. Willocks, who's also a screenwriter and hence lays out his fiction in action-packed scenes, wrote at least four published novels before MEMO FROM TURNER swept out from Blackstone Publishing. Count on that background for the strength and ferocity of this thriller, in which Turner, a black "warrant officer" with Cape Town's homicide unit, struggles to nail a killer across lines both racial and socioeconomic.

Readers will know early in the book the identity of the likely killer, who's casually injured a black street girl with his high-end Range Rover, while very much inebriated. It's the mandated cover-up by the young man's powerful mining-magnate family that becomes a threat to Turner himself, as he struggles to find a way to force a confession and some kind of justice.
[Jason] looked at. Turner as if giving him his full attention for the first time.

"Turner, right?"


"Where's Rudy?"

"I thought we'd handle this without him ... Rudy said you'd make a witness statement."

Jason waved the jug. "I didn't hurt a f***ing fly in Cpae Town."

"I didn't think you did."

"Now Rudy tells me they want me in a cell, sh**ting in the same bucket as five blacks."

"Tell me what happened early Sunday morning, outside the shebeen."

"You know what happened."

"I wasn't there," said Turner. "I need to hear it from you."

... If Jason would have let him, Turner would have gone. The dash-cam video would be enough to push a warrant through. He felt no pity for the hulking young farmer; but he had no desire to kill him.
Unflinching in his portrayal of a landscape without pity and a stacked deck of injustice, Willocks slams Turner against all of it, and the body count rises swiftly. But there is always an aura of enormous regret in this thriller, something that also seems to ooze from the battered landscape and its terrible history.

It's a book that's hard to put down, and impossible to forget. So consider yourself warned -- but I hope you pursue a copy, and dare to read it all. It's worth all the unease and disturbance. And the deadly risks that Turner's willing to undergo.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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