Location: Laos, 1978
Detective: Coroner (Ret.) Dr. Siri Paiboun
The people who live in a tiny Laotian village aren't terribly surprised when someone shoots and kills the strange woman who lives on a hill. As is their custom, they burn her body on a pyre and move on with their lives.
But they're taken aback when she returns in the flesh, sounding and looking a bit different but not different enough. They call her "Madame Used-to-Be" as she becomes popular with the outside world and sought-after for her visions of the dead.
Dr. Siri Paiboun, a genial retired coroner, is a man of science who has more than a passing acquaintance with the spirit world. He's at least open at least to the idea that she has special powers. But does she really?
"The Woman Who Wouldn't Die," the latest Dr. Paiboun novel by Colin Cotterill, showcases both author and detective at the top of their games. It's an entertaining and captivating mystery underpinned by a fascinating exploration of the tangled history of Laos – er, make that the People's Democratic Republic of Laos – through the late 1970s.
At its most intriguing, the novel captures the tensions between Southeast Asian countries that may seem interchangeable to Westerners. Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos each have their own allegiances to foreign powers, their own national personalities, and their own suspicions of each other.
All the significant characters are vividly drawn, even secondary players like a slow-witted hanger-on, a blustery bureaucrat, and a smart dog named Ugly.
If this tale took place in another locale and another time, these characters might have turned this novel into one of those comfy-chair mysteries known as "cozies." But the stakes are higher thanks to a European man bent on revenge and his target, a woman who once fought with deadly force to protect her honor (and her country's).