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SLASH AND BURN
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, December 2011
290 pages
$25.00
ISBN: 1616951168


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Those familiar with Colin Cotterill's series set in Laos in the 1970s know that it's impossible to categorize. These stories offer the gentle humor and eccentric cast of recurring characters typical of light-hearted cozy mysteries, but also include a supernatural element, sharp-edged political critique, and an often-barbed examination of the wages of war. They are in turns reassuring and unsettling, often hilarious while documenting the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the killing fields of Cambodia. It's not that Cotterill makes light of tragedy so much as that humor is the visa he issues us to get past our defenses as we confront our history; it's also an endorsement of the dignity and resilience of ordinary people.

In this latest entry in the series, Dr. Siri is yanked away from his imminent retirement to accompany a joint Lao-American team led by a loud-mouthed heavy-drinking ex-serviceman into a remote part of Laos to examine what might be the remains of a downed US plane and its pilot. Things aren't as simple as they appear: American politicians have their reasons to hunt for MIAs and Lao politicians are cooperating for political reasons, but this expedition into the jungle isn't all politics as usual. An evocative prologue from the point of view of the missing pilot and some mysterious events in the Philippines tip off the reader that this complicated situation is even more convoluted than it seems. And when a member of the expedition is murdered at the Friendship Hotel deep in the jungle, Siri has to uncover old secrets.

Readers new to the series might feel a bit lost unless they have read at least the first volume, THE CORONER'S LUNCH, to orient themselves to the time and place and be introduced to the characters. Those familiar with the series will be delighted to enjoy the company of familiar friends traveling with Dr. Siri: his wife, Daeng, Nurse Dtui, his morgue assistant Mr. Gueng, comrades Phosy and Civilai, the clairvoyant transvestite Aunti Bpoo, and even his bureaucratic nemesis, Judge Haeng. They are joined by additional memorable characters, particularly the boorish retired Major Harold Potter, expedition leader and chronic alcoholic, who becomes very human and even sympathetic in Cotterill's hands. It's a mark of his understated skill that Cotterill is able to sketch such vivid characters, interpret an unfamiliar culture, and untangle a complicated plot in under 300 brisk pages.

Like its protagonist, this series was expected to retire when Cotterill began writing a new series - but another adventure required Dr. Siri's attention. We can only hope it happens again.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2012

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