(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Colin Cotterill’s major protagonist, Dr. Siri Paiboun, represents the conjunction of several qualities unusual in mystery and detective fiction. At seventy-two years of age, Siri is more elderly than typical sleuths ( Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is a notable exception). The doctor is also a communist of long standing, albeit chronically lackadaisical about adhering strictly to the tenets of socialism. Though other communist detectives exist, including Russians such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko and Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, Laotian communist sleuths are scarce.

Siri, a Paris-trained physician and longtime field surgeon during successive communist movements, is pressed into service as a coroner despite his advanced age and lack of specialized training. Although he just wants to retire, he is appointed coroner for the entire country, a key official position fraught with political and social consequences. Siri, ever curious, makes the best of a bad situation that features antiquated instruments, eager but meager help from a pair of assistants, a nonexistent budget, and uncooperative bureaucrats. The son of a Hmong shaman and the embodiment of Yeh Ming, an ancient shaman, Siri struggles to understand his own seemingly supernatural powers—he constantly dreams of dead people and gains subtle clues about their demise. He meanwhile has to cope with local superstition and custom, Buddhist beliefs, and atheistic communist thought when traveling to view corpses in the far-flung corners of Laos. His day job is dissecting cadavers brought to the morgue of a hospital in Vientiane, a city of only 150,000, diminished in population because many people fled to neighboring Thailand before the communist takeover.

The milieu of Cotterill’s Dr. Siri novels is already intriguing for its ethnic and geographic diversity, its indigenous beliefs and customs, its colorful garb and exotic foodstuffs, and its ancient monuments and temples. Elephants, tigers, bears, extravagant flowers, and gaudy butterflies can be seen in the mountains and jungles and along Mekong riverbanks. The immediate political climate lends a further layer of interest. Each of Cotterill’s series novels, beginning with The Coroner’s Lunch, is set during a time of upheaval in a region of widespread unrest. The Pathet Lao movement that culminated in the forced abdication of the Laotian king mostly escaped notice in the West, grown weary of Southeast Asia after skirmishes in Indochina turned into the full-scale conflict of the Vietnam War. The situation provides opportunities for clashes among various factions: primitive tribes, Communist true...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)