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by Colin Cotterill
Knopf Canada, August 2007
288 pages
$29.95 CDN
ISBN: 0676979513

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Vientiane, 1977: 24 months after the ascendancy of the Pathet Lao and the beginning of what was hoped to be a new socialist age in Indo-China. But not too much has changed in those two years. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and there is very little vehicular traffic in the streets of the national capital.

Nevertheless, a blind dentist, wandering into the road, is run down and killed, leaving behind a bit of a mystery for Dr Siri Paiboun, the official (and only) coroner. Why was the dentist making regular trips into town to the post office in order to pick up letters he couldn't read and why did the envelope he was carrying unopened when he died contain blank paper?

Fortunately, Siri has the benefit of a French education. Thanks to Inspector Maigret, he immediately recognizes invisible ink when he doesn't see it, but the message, when revealed, is in code. Happily, it's an easy one, suggesting a potential coup to overthrow the Lao regime is brewing. Siri and his old comrade Civilai set out for the south to try to foil the plot.

Along the way, Siri solves the mysterious death of a ten-year-old boy and finds out what Auntie Bpoo, a transvestite fortune teller, meant when she prophesied that he would betray his country.

Siri's gods and demons, prominent in earlier books in the series, have largely deserted him so most of the action takes place in the real rather than the spiritual realm. There are ghosts, nevertheless ghosts of the glory days of revolution, ghosts of Siri's youth, and they are troubling enough.

Perhaps because this book is more political and historical than spiritual, I found it the most satisfying of the series. True, there is not a great deal in the way of puzzle, but Laos is itself mystery enough. Its culture and its people struck me as somewhat quaint in the previous books, but here, in the struggle to accommodate ancient beliefs and customs to the demands of modern ideology, both take on a greater depth.

And there is a lovely cameo appearance by a Mekong river dolphin, made all the more poignant by the news today that its cousin, the Yangtze River dolphin, has just been officially declared extinct.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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