It's 1978 and Dr Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos, is now 74 years old, and his retirement is less than two months away. But then a note from his boss, Judge Haeng summons him to the Ministry of Justice, and one last job.
`Trust me - nothing can go wrong this time.'
Dr Siri is to accompany a joint Lao- American team into a remote area of Laos to examine what might the remains of a downed US airman and his helicopter missing since August 1968. It's a five day mission and Dr Siri's presence has been requested by the Americans. Dr Siri negotiates, and agrees to accompany the mission provided that he is accompanied by his wife Madame Daeng, his mortuary staff Nurse Dtui and Mr Gueng, and his friends Phosy and Civilai. Readers familiar with the series (this is the eighth book) will recognise each of these characters.
`But the nice thing about facts is that you can toss them in here and there merely to win arguments. It doesn't matter if they're accurate.'
Dr Siri quickly realises that nothing is really as it seems. The reader has some clues about the possible complexity of the mission based on the prologue (from the point of view of Boyd Bowry, the missing pilot) and some mysterious events in the Philippines. American politicians have their own reasons for searching, and while the Lao politicians are cooperating for political reasons, they are most definitely not speaking the same language. And when a member of the expedition is found dead at the Friendship Hotel, Dr Siri is determined to uncover the truth. Auntie Bpoo, the clairvoyant transvestite, is also part of the expedition and has foretold Dr Siri's death. Will it be on this expedition? Will it be before Dr Siri finishes this case?
`This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Dr Siri.'
Madame Haeng's cooking skills come in very handy, and Mr Gueng becomes a bona fide hero. And throughout the story Judge Haeng reminds us of the multiple attributes of a good communist:
`A good communist does not shake his comrade by the hand and stab him in the back at the same time.'
`A good communist is like a tree. He stands firm but knows how to bend in a strong wind. He is fertile but gladly gives up his nuts to less fortunate creatures.'
I enjoyed this novel: will be the last in this series? I'm looking forward to the second book in Mr Cotterill's new series (featuring Jimm Juree) (`Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach') is due to be published shortly.