It's 1978, and the war ended in Laos nearly three years ago, leaving the Communist Pathet Lao regime in charge. Siri Paiboun, the very cynical party member and former partisan, unwillingly drafted to be the country's chief (actually, its only) coroner in his 70s, and his new wife, the 66-year-old Madame Daeng (noodle chef par excellence and former freedom fighter) are starting to believe that they may carve out a happy and harmonious life for whatever years are left to them. Married for two months, the smile hasn't left Siri's lips since.
But the honeymoon is about to be disrupted; Dr. Siri isn't the only happy man in town, and that's bad news. For starters, there are the bureaucrats from the Housing Department, who have discovered to their glee that Siri has let an oddball assortment of people live in his house while he seems to have abandoned his allocated house to live with Mme. Daeng. If they succeed in taking his house away, Siri frets, a former royal puppeteer, a renegade Thai Buddhist monk, some former prostitutes and a couple of Hmong infants that Siri is caring for, will all be left homeless. More serious a threat to Siri's contentment -- and to his longevity -- is another very happy man. He's "Phan", a young man who arrives in remote towns, marries beautiful young women and takes them off on honeymoon -- then kills them. When a young woman arrives to be autopsied on Dr. Siri's table, and he's perturbed to discover that she has been strangled; few Lao would ever strangle another human being, believing that the dead person's spirit would flow through their hands into them and haunt them "for eternity". So Dr. Siri already knows he has a very evil murderer on the loose -- and then he discovers that this isn't the first such crime...
It may seem odd to describe as 'delightful',a murder mystery in which the criminal is a serial killer. But then Cotterill's series of Laotian mysteries featuring Dr. Siri are unique in any number of ways. The investigation is interspersed with other plot elements, like the disappearance of Crazy Rajid and housing wrangle, all of which pit Dr. Siri against everything from stubborn bureaucrats to evil spirits. I laughed so hard I ended up with hiccups at the description of collision between a government limo and a motorcycle, crushing eggs in the motorcycle's sidecar and turning them into a vast omelet on the overheated hood of the limo. (The police have to hold back onlookers "brandishing spoons and plates".) Dr. Siri refelcts that "the chances of two motorized vehicles colliding in Vientiane were less than that of a bird of paradise defecating on your best hat. Poosu, the Hmong god of small accidents, must have been bored that evening."
As the pages are turned, however, the novel's focus narrows slowly but surely to the urgent race to identify the serial killer before he can strike again. Everyone is involved, from the intrepid coroner and Daeng, to Siri's heavily pregnant nurse, Dtui (Siri expects her to give birth to a baby bulldozer); Dtui's husband, the stolid but sensible cop, Phosy, Siri's old crony, Civilai (who has turned to baking after being ousted from the Politburo) and Mr. Geung, the morgue aide who was born with Down's syndrome. The tension builds throughout as the investigators -- both amateur and professional -- scramble to put together the clues in a country where the only ultra-violet lamp available to scrutinize a medical test result is located in the disco lights in a school gymnasium.
At its heart, this is a procedural detective story, but the detectives themselves are unlike any characters you will find in any other novels. The writing is witty; the characters unique and distinctive. Like Siri, I was unable to rest until the race to identify and stop Phan, the 'merry misogynist' of the title, was over.
Siri, as readers of this series will know, is the Lao equivalent of a cat with nine lives. He's the reincarnation of a shaman, and is plagued by demons and spirits. It was disconcerting to check Cotterill's website and realize that the author expects the next Dr. Siri novel to be the final outing for the aged coroner. While I can't wait to have that book in my hands, I'm in the dumps about the fact that Siri and the wonderful fictional world Cotterill has created, will vanish from my literary world after 2010. I hereby pledge to support one of the minority Lao hilltribe students for the 3 or 4 years of teacher training through the organization that Cotterill has helped launch if he promises to keep turning out mysteries with equally-vivid characters in the years to come. After all, if a septugenarian coroner in 1970s can investigate crime, surely a second series of some kind isn't outside the realms of possibility?
Highly recommended to anyone looking for a great detective story with an utterly unique and compelling hero. It will get your adrenaline pumping AND you'll end it with a smile on your own face.