"Anarchy and Old Dogs" is Colin Cotterill's fourth investigation of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos. As with the previous three, it is set in 1977, about two years after the revolution delivered Laos into Communist hands. The wily and wiry Dr. Siri was in his youth a revolutionary firebrand, a fierce supporter of the People's government and advocate for the disposal of an abusive royal regime. But now 73 years old, Paiboun would prefer retirement to sparing with government bureaucrats in his understaffed and under-budget forensic operation. Seems in actual practice, communism is not quite the utopia promised in the musings of Marx or Lenin, painfully evident in chronic shortages of even the most fundamental necessities at the fumblings of officials in a government where political connections trump competence.
This is a refreshing and unusual crime fiction series, and as "Anarchy" proves, the talented Cotterill gets better with every new installment. This time around, a blind dentist is run down on the streets of the Laotian capital city of Vientiane. What seems to be an unfortunate accident takes on much deeper and sinister undercurrents, leading Siri and long time friend and fellow revolutionary Civilai Songsawat into a complicated and dangerous trail of intrigue and counterrevolution. Filling in some of the history missing in his prior works, Cotterill spins a thoughtful and insightful portrait of the struggles and failures of the young socialist government, showing deep respect and empathy for the Laotian people without glorifying the communist government that turns out about as oppressive as their predecessors. Those familiar with the series will find Nurse Dtui back with a few surprises, and Siri less dependent on his unwelcome and unwanted supernatural abilities, relying instead on the corporeal to crack the case. Genuinely suspenseful and holding more than a few twists up his sleeve, both the author and his cagey coroner uncork an intelligent page-turner that will keep you thinking and waiting for Paiboun's next adventure.
From the start, Cotterill's magic lies in a unique main character set in an unfamiliar land in an interesting period of contemporary history. But as the series progresses, it is increasingly clear that there is more to Cotterill than gimmick, as the characters and the subject matter move into deeper, more poignant and serious waters, while maintaining the dry and cynical humor and refreshing story lines that have set this author well above the gun slinging, wise-cracking PI pack. If you haven't discovered Colin Cotterill and Dr. Siri Paiboun yet, you're missing a rare literary treat.