This is the third of Colin Cotterill's novels of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the spry and wily septuagenarian national coroner for the Democratic People's Republic of Laos. It is also the most ambitious of the series, adding a few layers of depth and gravity to its relatively lighthearted predecessors.
Siri is called to the northern mountains of Huaphan province, home of the legendary cave dwellings where the upstart communists of the Pathet Lao hung out while overthrowing the Lao monarchy. A mummified arm has been found protruding from a broken slab of sidewalk concrete in front of the president's northern retreat just days before the anniversary celebration of the new red regime. Siri, with the steadfast nurse Dtui at his side, must identify the corpse and solve the mystery, all in time to prevent the struggling Pathet Lao further embarrassment. Meanwhile, in the Dr.'s absence, Siri's faithful but retarded morgue assistant, Mr. Geung, has been kidnapped from the beloved morgue, forcibly reassigned to a labor camp of the north.
As in all of Cotterill's novels, eastern mysticism plays a key role, and Siri's ability to see and communicate with the dead again comes in handy as a neat forensic tool. "Disco" harbors a darker theme than either "The Coroner's Lunch" or "Thirty-Three Teeth", mixing Caribbean black magic with Southeast Asian spiritualism, while wading MASH-deep into the horrors of war and the toll on its unintended and unsuspecting victims. Notwithstanding, and despite slightly more political innuendo than was mercifully avoided in his previous works, this is an intelligent and engaging read. Paiboun remains one of the most unusual heroes of modern fiction, a scrappy and resourceful clinician who neither wants nor enjoys his special talents, but maintains his wry humor and increasingly learns how to use his gift to his advantage.
Unlike "Thirty-Three Teeth", which really read like a sequel, "Disco for the Departed" stands on its own. Cotterill builds enough of the back-story to fill in the pieces for the new reader, but with enough subtlety to not be tedious for Paiboun fans. Off beat, educational, and entertaining, both Cotterill and Siri Paiboun are worth the investment.