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'I Shot the Buddah' revisits Siri Paiboun, solving crimes in late 1970s Laos

'I Shot the Buddha' has a chewy heft, in the fine tradition of its 10 siblings in the 'Siri Paiboun' series: history, geopolitics, chromatic characters, genus loci, the human condition, and the pilgrim’s progress.

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    I Shot the Buddha
    By Colin Cotterill
    Soho Press Inc.
    352 pages
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If eyes are the gateway to the soul, then a whole lot of shaking is going on behind the lantern green eyes of Dr. Siri Paiboun.

For instance, Siri hosts – as in his body serves as a nesting place for – a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman. This does not make Siri a super hero; if anything, he is the most wonderfully human of heroes. “Siri awoke from a deep Glenfiddich sleep with a surprisingly clear head. So clear, in fact, that it contained few recollections of the previous night.” As for his potential super-spirit power, well, he’s working on that.

In I Shot the Buddha, the 11th in Colin Cotterill’s Paiboun detective series, we are returned to the familiar shaky ground of Laos in the late 1970s. Siri is as old as the century and an insurrectionist for almost as long. A poor boy who earned a scholarship to study medicine in Paris, he returned home to foment revolution with the Free Lao Movement and to serve as a field surgeon during the Pathet Lao campaign to overthrow the monarchy, not to forget both crypto and neo colonialists. As a good communist (that is, where abilities are nurtured, needs met, and shorn of the Leninist afterthoughts) and as a good doctor, he is the embodiment of “First, do no harm.”

Having lived in the countryside or in a cave for most of his life after Paris, Siri never knew the bright lights of Vientiane, and likely never will. Laos is a basket case, a model of hierarchical corruption and cronyism common to all socioeconomic tags: “It seemed that for every competent man or woman there was an incompetent man above. It was the law of trickle-up irresponsibility.”

Vientiane, where Siri plied his arm-twisted trade as the country’s only coroner (now retired, but not for the first eight or nine books of the series), is “shuttered and dusty, and the only sounds at night were the burping of frogs and the occasional crashing of hopes.”

Siri, though, will not surrender the wry worldliness that is the gift of a decade in Paris: damning the consequences, surviving the odds, and living to liven things up – coroners being in a unique position to stir mischief with all those dead people around – by poking a sharp stick in the eye of state malfeasance (at the hands of which come many of Siri’s clients) and letting the spirit move him ... his thousand-year-old, ungovernable, live-in spirit, Yeh Ming. Siri “rarely discussed such matters, particularly not with Party members. One of the numerous things socialists did not understand was the interplay of dimensions.”

"I Shot the Buddha" will delight readers with a taste for Siri’s mystical side. Cotterill is adept with the spirits of Laos, opening the lid to their jar only so much, retaining their mystery. We know they can haunt if they have unfinished business, or frighten – really badly frighten, as in mortally – if they have been mistreated; we know that the state would like to wipe out the belief in wizardry, but they have nothing to replace it with.

“The phi – the spirits of the land and the air and those that reside within folk – were the only authorities peasants in the countryside could count on with any certainty.” (Siri, however, has as yet no command over his Yeh Ming; he sees spirits everywhere he goes, “‘steps over from limbo,’ he called them,” or “hearing them as background rhubarb at inopportune moments.”)

Still, he cannot communicate with them. Unfortunately, Yeh Ming has made powerful spirit enemies, too, spirits that have been disruptive, or, to we faint of heart, petrifying. In this story, Siri moves to higher ground on the spirit front, with more give and take, and a trial by claustrophobia.

And, yes, there is a mystery as well. There are three sprawling mysteries, for that matter, involving the disappearance of a mendicant forest monk, the imminent reincarnation of Buddha, and some hanky-panky with the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism over in Thailand. The different strands become orchestral by the book’s end, with the entire gratifying cast of Siri’s misfit, pillorying, and sardonic friends getting involved, including Ugly the dog, who can smell a bad spirit at 30 paces (thankfully). Cotterill also introduces some abiding social abominations, such as child abuse, which give his stories a sense of playing with time – same as it ever was – as much as spirits playing with our psychic vulnerabilities.

"I Shot the Buddha" has a chewy heft, in the fine tradition of its 10 siblings: history, geopolitics, chromatic characters, genus loci, the human condition, and the pilgrim’s progress – and love.

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