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Coroner-sleuth quips his way to the truth in 1970s Laos

Coroner-sleuth quips his way to the truth in 1970s Laos

Author Colin Cotterill’s reluctant national Laotian coroner-cum-sleuth Dr Siri Paiboun rides again, or more accurately ambles again, in yet another improbable tale, Slash and Burn, set in 1970s Laos.

The thriller genre is a popular beast in Southeast Asia, and a gaggle of amateurish and often awful thriller writers has been whittled down over the past decade or so to a group of serious writers who have gained international repute. Bangkok is home to writer John Burdett’s famed fictional Royal Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, as well as Christopher G Moore’s acclaimed private investigator Vincent Calvino; while from Singapore, Shamini Flint’s fat Sikh cop Inspector Singh roams the region.

Thriller fans mostly agree that Burdett is the superior regional thriller writer, but Cotterill is certainly giving him a run for his money, as is evidenced by the new Dr Siri series novel, Slash and Burn which was published late last year and is now on sale at Monument Books (US$18).

Thai-based Cotterill has certainly come of age as a novelist and his reputation has spread beyond the regional scene into the international publishing stratosphere.

Slash and Burn is the eighth book in the Siri series, and according to the author possibly the last, although that was also said about the seventh book.

The Siri books are as quirky and idiosyncratic as the hero himself: the septuagenarian mystery-solving Laotian coroner. In an interview in Publishers Weekly in October, Cotteril touched on the inspiration for his fictional character. He pointed to the unlikely Thai celebrity and forensic pathologist Dr Pornthip. “She has punk hair and piercing and has written some 30 gory books on her subject. I wondered what type of personality a Lao coroner would need to achieve the same reputation. And I came up with Siri,” he explained.

And of course no Dr Siri book would not be complete without the interplay with his long-suffering acerbic side-kick, wife Madame Daeng. She is described by Siri himself in Slash and Burn as, “A legend in the underground resistance forces against the French, a spy of many faces, never discovered by the enemy, a woman with an intellect so high that she married me, and the maker of the best noodles on this and probably every other planet.”

That description gives a flavour of Cotterill’s writing, for those who are unfamiliar with his work.

Slash and Burn starts off as a fairly hard-core conventional thriller with an increasingly complex plot, but descends into absurdist farce vaguely reminiscent of Florida writer Carl Hiaasen.

The plot briefly revolves around an oddball group of characters pressed into a sortie into the Laotian jungle to find the remains of a missing Air America pilot who went down with his craft at the height of the Vietnam War, or, as the Vietnamese says, the American War.

The Cluedo-like cast of characters, sans Colonel Mustard, but including a gaggle of Laotian military officers, a boorish and bombastic US senator, a rambunctious transvestite, a suspect American journalist et al, are marooned in an outpost deep in the Laotian jungle for several days where all the plot’s pieces unravel and unfold leading, as they say in the thriller genre, to the gripping conclusion.

A must read book, perfect to while away weekend hours basking by the pool in the coming hot days leading up the Khmer New Year. Having said that, this reviewer found the absurdist ending just a tad too absurd to be satisfying, but perhaps that’s just down to personal taste.

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