Tag Archives: crime

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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7. “The merry misogynist” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Lao Insight, 2009
Page count: 236 pages

Despite the ominous title, this is yet another delightful book in the series about Dr Siri Paiboun, the 73-year old (fictitious) doctor who was made national coroner by the Lao Communist revolution in the mid-1970s. In this latest installment, Dr Siri is investigating a Lao mass murderer who woos young, innocent girls, promising to take them away from their destitute villages to be a diplomat’s wife abroad, only to kill them on their wedding nights. Given the disorganised state of police affairs and the underdeveloped communications across Laos, Laos is full of villages cut off from the world, making Dr Siri’s task of tracking down the killer about as easy as finding a needle in a haystack…

In addition to this criminal case, Dr Siri and his wife, Madame Daeng, are investigating a mystery closer to home: whatever happened to Rajid, the Indian crazy man who used to wander harmlessly around, lost in a universe of his own? Retracing Rajid’s footsteps, they discover that the man they thought was an imbecile and an orphan, is in fact neither: not only do they manage to track down Rajid’s father, but also Rajid has left them beautifully written riddles and poems in Sanskrit giving them clues of his current location! But will they manage to solve the riddles before time runs out for Rajid?

As is usually the case with the crime novels about Dr Siri, this book is more about Lao society and culture, and about a tight-knit group of friends in Communist Lao, than it is about the crimes themselves. That said, given the heinous nature of the murders in this book, this book is more action-filled than the predecessors in the series, as Dr Siri is quite literally running out of time before the killer woos his next victim. Add to that the comic relief of Dr Siri’s troubles with the Communist housing committee, the birth of Dtui’s daughter, and the hunt for Rajid, and you have all the ingredients needed for an excellent crime-cum-humour novel. Well worth the read!

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5. “Curse of the pogo stick” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Lao Insight

This is the fifth installment in the Dr Siri Paibourn crime series set in Laos during the Communist revolution in the mid- to late 1970s. In “Curse of the pogo stick” (surely one of the most creative names of a crime novel ever?!) Dr Siri has been sent to a Communist national conference that is boring him half to death, while Dtui and Mr Geung are stuck with the auditors at the mortuary in Vientiane.

Things quickly become more exciting, however, when Dtui uncovers a plot to bomb the mortuary – with the help of Phosy, her policeman husband, she soon links the bomb to the Lizard, the spy who was behind the failed Monarchist coup d’état in a previous book. Together Dtui and Phosy set out to capture the Lizard and her cronies. At the same time, Dr Siri is kidnapped by a Hmong tribe to exorcise a curse that has decimated the village’s male population – it all began when one of the men brought home a cursed pogo stick after a training stint in the US…

This is yet another delightful book about Dr Siri Paibourn and his companions. Like the others in the series, “Curse of the pogo stick” is a wonderful depiction of daily life in Laos during the Communist revolution combined with a truly original crime plot. The book also made me laugh out loud on several occasions, for instance when a bored bureaucrat mistakes Siri and Madame Cheung for the bride and groom’s grand parents when they go to tie the knot at the court house. A wonderful read!

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4. “The dark enquiry” by Deanna Raybourn

Publisher: MIRA, 2011
Page count: 387 pages

As the daughter of an earl and with more funds than she could ever spend in a lifetime, Julia Grey could very easily have settled into the dull but comfortable life typical of upper class women in Victorian London. However, Julia has a strong, independent streak in her and therefore insists upon joining in on her husband Brisbane’s detective business, frequently endangering herself and causing Brisbane no end of distraction and worries.

In “The dark enquiry”, the fifth novel in the series, Julia’s brother Bellmont, a high-flying and powerful Tory, hires Brisbane to discreetly retrieve some amorous letters that Bellmont sent to his mistress. The letters could not only ruin Bellmont’s own political aspirations, but could even topple the sitting government were they to fall into the wrong hands. Brisbane therefore seeks out the posh Spirit Club, where Bellmont’s mistress, madame Séraphine, works as a medium. Driven by her insatiable curiousity, Julia sneaks into the Spirit Club after Brisbane, disguised as a man, and observes a seance by the so-called medium. Brisbane then discovers Julia at the club, but has no choice but to include her in his investigation because time is running short. Just as they are about to search madame’s rooms for the letters, she returns, forcing them to hide in a cupboard where they become witness to madame Séraphine’s death by poisoning. The letters are still nowhere to be found, and with their one lead now murdered, Julia and Brisbane once again have to resolve a crime that will bring their own lives into jeopardy…

While the concept of an upper class lady detective in Victorian England is fairly ludicrous and unrealistic in itself, that doesn’t mar my delight at reading the result, which is a thoroughly enjoyable series of crime-cum-romance historical novels. This fifth installment is no exception; in particular I liked the way Deanna Raybourn added ever more layers to the relationship between Julia and Brisbane. In this book they are settling into what was supposed to be domestic bliss following their honeymoon, which could very easily have set the stage for a sugarsweet and desperately dull read (Tasha Alexander committed this very mistake in the most recent lady Emily book). Thankfully, that is not the case here, as Brisbane’s checkered past and Julia’s impetuousness keep things interesting and ensure the story moves forward. Consequently I took great pleasure in reading this book, and am eagerly awaiting the next, whenever that may be!

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3. “Operation Napoleon” by Arnaldur Indridason

Publisher: Vintage Books, 2011 (first published in the Icelandic in 1999)
Page count: 383 pages

Unlike Indridason’s other crime novels (which admittedly I have yet to read), “Operation Napoleon” is a standalone crime novel that is more historical mystery/thriller than crime novel per se. The book opens up in the final days of WWII when a German bomber plane, disguised in Allied colours, crashes on Vatnajökull in the midst of a terrible storm. Both German and American high-ranking officers are on board the plane, and one of them disappears into the storm carrying a suitcase attached to his wrist. Two brothers on a remote farm observe the crash from afar, but can do nothing to help because of the snow storm. By the time the brothers are able to notify the authorities, the plane has been swallowed up by the glacier, and US military attempts to retrieve it are in vain.

54 years later the plane slowly resurfaces from the glacier, triggering a covert American operation to extricate it. Two Icelandic teenagers on a mountain training expedition happen to observe the secret mission, and are captured and tortured by the American troops. Before they are caught, however, one of them, Elias, manages to call his sister Kristin and tell her about their discovery. Consequently Kriatin instantly suspects foul play when she hears that her brother has sustained life-threatening injuries in an accident on the glacier. Kristin sets out to discover the truth about the plane, plunging her into a geopolitical plot which puts her own life at risk…

“Operation Napoleon” is a classic airport novel; it’s an easy read, passes the time, and has sufficient plot to keep it interesting all throughout the book. That said, I found it to be a refreshing change from the crime novels and spy thrillers I usually read (which are UK and US ones, mostly). This was partly because of the unusual setting (when did you last read a spy novel set entirely on a glacier?) and partly because it’s a crime novel without the usual detective-victim-suspect routine. Also, Indridason does a good job in keeping you guessing at what exactly was in the plane, and the briefcase, to make the American secret services so desperate to recover the plane in secret after all these years. The result is a good read with a surprisingly decent plot – I won’t spoil anything more except to say that the geopolitical ramifications if such a plane really existed would be potent enough to change the course of world history…

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26. “The coroner’s lunch” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Lao Insight, 2004
Page count: 246 pages

“The coroner’s lunch” is the first book in a series of crime novels about Dr Siri Paibourn, the (fictional) national pathologist in communist Laos. The book is set in 1975 immediately after the communists successfully overthrew the royal family and French-sympathising Lao government. At age 72, Dr Paibourn was hoping to enjoy a quiet retirement, but instead he is called upon to perform his duty as national coroner because the communists can’t be seen not to have this paragon of justice and independence in place after the revolution.

The only problem is, Siri isn’t actually a pathologist, only a regular physician, and the morgue in Vientiane lacks even the most rudimentary tools required for his new trade. His only means of assistance are Dtui, a trained nurse, and Mr Geung, a man with Down’s syndrome who was patiently trained by Siri’s predecessor into becoming an invaluable aid due to his memory, sense of smell, and prowess with a hacksaw! Despite this lack of experience and resources, Dr Paibourn’s insatiable curiosity and 6th sense with regards to the spiritual world (he literally sees a lot of the victims in his sleep) leads him to unravel a politically sensitive mystery involving 3 tortured and murdered Vietnamese men discovered in a lake. Unfortunately, curiosity killed the cat and soon Siri finds himself in lethal danger…

This is a crime novel truly out of the ordinary. While “The coroner’s lunch” has a well-conceived crime story as its base, it is almost more interesting for its depiction of life in Laos in the aftermath of the communist revolution. Dr Paibourn’s cynical observations of the political intrigue and the harsh realities of Laos’ new communist rule seem heartfelt and believeable. At the same time, the author avoids the temptation of overdoing it or of including any pro-American, capitalist propaganda. The result is a crime novel which not only entertains you but also leaves you feeling like you actually gained new insight into a recent part of history, a remarkable feat indeed!

As if this wasn’t enough, this book has an extra feel-good factor: all the proceeds from this book series go to three Lao charities close to the author’s heart. Big brother mouse is an organisation which publishes childrens’ books in Lao language to promote literacy; COPE is an NGO that produces prostetics and other aid for victims of the many unexploded bombs and cluster bombs (UXO) left in Laos after the Vietnam war; and the last is a series of scholarships for rural youth training to become teachers before they return to their native villages to teach. I don’t know about you, but if this isn’t a good enough reason to buy this excellent detective story, I don’t know what is!

PS! The reason I haven’t posted a photo of this book is that I bought it directly from the publisher, Lao-Insight, while on holiday in Laos. As I enjoyed the book so much, I lent it to one of my friends and fellow travellers who in turn brought it with her home to the Congo to read. I assumed that I would easily find a picture of it online, but I keep finding pictures of the Soho Press version instead. You’ll therefore have to wait until I get the book back so that I can take a picture of it myself and post it here!

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