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THE SECOND BIGGEST NOTHING
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, August 2019
254 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 1641290617


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It starts with a threatening message tied to the tail of a dog named Ugly. The message is ugly, too: someone from Dr. Siri Paiboun's past has tracked him down and plans to destroy him and everyone he loves within the next two weeks. In fact, someone close to him has already been sacrificed. Too bad neither the elderly Laotian coroner or his wife can read English.

It's the end of 1980 and Vientiane is celebrating five years of Communist rule a celebration that is the "second biggest nothing" after the first, the glorious revolution, which has delivered nothing at all to the people of Laos, a tremendous relief after living through years of conflict. After a group of visiting journalists have been treated to speeches and lots of alcohol, Siri invites his old friend, the retired diplomat Comrade Civilai to his wife's noodle house to translate the mysterious message. It seems there's a mystery to solve, one that comes with a lifetime full of suspects.

Though Siri has lived an adventurous life, he can't recall many times when someone was so determined to have revenge. One was in 1932 in Paris where he first became acquainted with Civilai. Another was in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. These become opportunities to travel with him into his past, something long-time readers of the series will especially enjoy. They are also likely to be saddened by the departure of a familiar series character, though Cotterill's typical good-natured humor softens the blow.

This is one of those books in a long-running series that works best if you've read at least one or two of the previous books. It's the difference between, say, meeting up with old friends at a party with encountering a lot of interesting strangers for the first time who all know one another well enough to finish each other's inside jokes. For the newcomer, it may be disorienting to be introduced in the first pages to an elderly physician who disappears from time to time, married to a woman with a tail that her doctor cannot see. For the seasoned traveler to Cotterill's Laos, it's just like old times.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2019

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