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by Colin Cotterill
Knopf Canada, September 2006
256 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0676978339

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As readers who have been following this series will know, Dr Siri Paiboun, reluctant coroner and quietly disillusioned Communist whose dreams of retirement have had to be deferred at the behest of the Pathet Lao government, brings a combination of sceptical pragmatism and mystical inspiration to bear on the odd, even bizarre, crimes that come his way.

This time out, Dr Siri and his nurse, Dtui, have been sent to the furthest northeast reaches of the country, to the caves where the Pathet Lao hid out for so many years. Here a corpse has surfaced, embarrassingly, from a concrete path just where a great national celebration is about to take place.

At the autopsy, the body presents some puzzling marks and clear signs of having met a violent end. Dr Siri is aided in his investigations by a Cuban surgeon, Dr Santiago, an elderly man not unlike Siri himself, who seems to have fetched up somewhat unwillingly at this remote hospital.

Meanwhile, Mr Geung, Siri's assistant, who has Down's syndrome, has been left to look after the morgue in the surgeon's absence. But the head of the Justice Department has decided that employing a public assistant with a learning disability is unseemly and takes the opportunity to send Geung far away in the hope that he will be rapidly killed by an insurgent or a landmine.

Geung knows where his duty lies, however, and he does everything he can to return to his post. As Siri and Dtui struggle with the northern corpse and with a variety of other smaller mysteries, Geung sets out across a country he barely understands, doggedly pointing himself back to Vientiane.

The great attraction of this series is the originality of both its setting and its hero. At 73, Siri finds his life growing more fascinating by the day. He has been "reborn into a period in which fantasy and reality were interchangeable." Siri is aware of his shamanistic inheritance, unafraid of the spirit world, and open to what it has to tell him.

At the same time, if no longer a zealot, he is still a Communist and a scientist as well, and disinclined to ignore the material world. He is amused in equal measure by the demands of socialist bureaucracy and the peculiarities of the souls of the dead and the reader will be amused along with him.

The exoticism of the setting and the characters held me for quite a way into this novel, but by the end (and it is not terribly long), both plot lines began to sink under their mystical freight and what had seemed a fascinating dance between two presumably irreconcilable world views began to look merely quaint.

The publicity that came along with this book declares: "If you like The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, you will LOVE Dr Siri's morgue!" I have to confess that I am very much in the minority in not liking Precious Ramtoswe a great deal and, though I liked Dr Siri rather better, I am a bit dubious about the faint whiff of benevolent colonialism that I (perhaps unfairly) suspect clings to both these representations of cultures that the authors view affectionately but that are not really theirs.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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