13. “Slash and burn” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Quercus, 2011
Page count: 374 pages

“Slash and burn” is the eight and, to date, last instalment in the Dr Siri series. The novel starts with Dr Siri counting down the days until his retirement – his resignation has finally been accepted and he now has only two more months to go before he can spend his days reading the works of dead French philosophers and indulging himself in Mme Daeng’s noodles. So when Dr Siri is called in for a meeting by Judge Haeng, he seriously considers just ignoring the invite. In the end, though, he attends the meeting and is astounded as a group of Americans show up, too. They claim to be looking for Boyd Bowry, a US airforce helicopter pilot who went missing in action in Laos ten years ago. His father, a well connected and powerful US senator, has now wrangled a deal in which Laos will receive humanitarian aid in return for allowing a joint mission into discovering Boyd’s fate.

Dr Siri thinks the mission is a waste of time as the pilot presumably blew up along with his helicopter when it crashed. Nevertheless, he agrees to represent Lao interests provided his colleagues and friends can accompany him on the trip. And so it is that Dr Siri, his wife Mme Daeng, ex-politburo comrade Civilai, Mr Geung the morgue assistant, nurse Dtui, police officer Phosy and military officer Lit all find themselves in the northeastern Lao jungle two weeks later on what they expect to be an all expenses paid vacation alongside a mottled group of American soldiers, politicians and embassy personnel. Soon, though, it becomes clear that there is more to this mission than meets the eye as Boyd’s crewmen are murdered one by one. When death also comes to Dr Siri’s jungle camp, he realises that they are caught up in a far more sinister affair than anticipated…

I am a huge fan of the Dr Siri series, and this latest novel has all the astute cultural and political observations that I have come to know and love from the previous books. The highlight in this respect is the intercultural exchange between the Lao and the Americans – the lack of a common language, unfamiliarity with each others customs, and old grudges from the Vietnam war make for hilarious yet insight-inducing reading. Added to this, the storyline is as quixotic as ever, and Dr Siri and co as entertaining as always.

That said, I couldn’t help but feel that this book would have benefited greatly from some serious editing. Where the first books in the series barely passed the 200 pages mark, this novel is almost twice that in length. The result is unfortunately a story that is unnecessarily drawn out and a plot that slows down to a crawl. This is a real shame because one of the qualities I have most admired in previous Dr Siri books was the author’s ability to write rich yet succinct stories. This naturally begs the question whether Mr Cotterill was right to switch to his new publisher? Only time will tell – I will certainly give Dr Siri the benefit of a doubt if another book is published, but that is likely to be my last if Mr Cotterill doesn’t start delivering the goods again very soon!


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