Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night wind rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in neat formation, like sleet.... they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string. A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordinance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake.... For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that feed on them.
Right then. Greetings from Laos. Meanwhile, two old men, septuagenarian coots, sit on their favorite log. In front of them, a river the color of chocolate makes its lazy way east, then south. In the 20th century, here in 1976, it is a river known around the world, despite its modesty: the Mekong.
To the side of the men, sitting on the ground or up in a tree, maybe wearing clothes or maybe not, is Rajid: homeless, happy, their mute companion, and seemingly mad. The two old men eat baguette sandwiches and talk politics – the rumors, the rueful, the portentous – for this is the new Laos, the national liberation movement, of which the old men had been significant members, having finally rid the cobbled-together state of its foreign and homegrown usurpers, only to witness the creeping slime of the same old same old, whether olive drab or regal splendor: “Money. Eventually everything’s about money,” observes one of the old men. Revolutions have a smoothness around the jungle campfire that they rarely achieve after victory.
They talk of other things, too: movies, for instance. They are a couple of cinéastes-in-withdrawal, having feasted on films while at school in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the army of Lao resistance. In Vientiane in 1976, however, they are reduced to such state-sponsored temptations as "The Train from the Xiang Wu Irrigation Plant" or "The Benefits of Oiling Your Weapon." Or they can discuss the topics that – lucky for us – become the latest in a parade of mysteries that they will have to solve with their merry band of strays, waifs, vagabonds, exiles, lovers, dogs, each and every an oddity unto him or herself. The mysteries and the misfits, with the recent addition of Six and a Half Deadly Sins, make up the 10 books in Colin Cotterill’s "Dr. Siri Paiboun" series.
I am a fan of mysteries, procedurals, and books of suspense, but only the best, and I am the self-appointed epicure. Allow me to pull your chain. I’ll clear the tables right away: I am an ardent admirer of the early Spenser books (I spent my youth in his precincts). I have drunk deeply from Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Nicholas Freeling, Donna Leon, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. Sherlock Holmes is a saint. My favorites, however, are the 10 Martin Beck books from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and the mind-bending mysteries – both the long and the short stories – of Grijpstra and De Gier from Janwillem van de Wetering. All other comers are invited, I’ve experimented with a wide sampling, some have come close – the "Gorky Park" grouping, the one-off "Smilla’s Sense of Snow" – but I wasn’t holding my breath for another series as chromatic; politically astute; ripe with fellow feeling; atmospheric; driven in concert by the engines of character, landscape, and surrounding circumstance as these. I can hear the howls of protest; that’s what chains are for.
But if a leek needs to be swallowed, let it be a leek gratin, not the leek of humiliation; it’s my party, remember? That is, a welcome leek, for Dr. Siri Paiboun will be a gladdening complement to many mystery-reader’s table. Some of you have likely already shared your happy table with Dr. Siri; others of you will poo-poo the suggestion. But if you are unfamiliar with Paiboun works, it is time to crawl out of whatever cave you have been living in. This is for you.
It all started back in 2004 – and we have been running into Siri once a year since – when Cotterill wrote "The Coroner’s Lunch." There we met Dr. Siri Paiboun. Siri was then a 72-year-old medical doctor, fresh from the jungles of Laos’s liberation’s long war, and not so much serene as seen-it-all. Make no bones about it, he’s a communist, if a heathen one: “He’d come to believe two conflicting ideas with equal conviction: that communism was the only way man could be truly content; and that man, given his selfish ways, could never practice communism with any success.”
He is a Marxist, without the Leninist afterthoughts (“centralism” is a giveaway, as is “first among equals”). His Marxism is as much Groucho as Karl, with a sense of humor ranging from wry to cynical to sardonic to caustic to black. This is laughter as subversion, laughter as gatekeeper to sanity. And he was a revolutionary, finally, and could be, for the love of a woman: Boua, a renegade Lao royalist he met in Paris and whom he would follow like a hound on the scent, even unto the jungle caves of Vieng Xay, for the next 30 years. That, comrade, is love.
Siri figured he was set for retirement once the insurrection was over, but the politburo had other ideas. He would become the country’s coroner. Its one and only coroner. Poor reluctant Siri was slave to his decency – from each according to their abilities, so each according to their needs (plus he had no choice) – so, without training or instruments, he occupies his latest cave for the revolution: the morgue. As heaven would have it – and there is a heaven, or something akin to the astral plane, in Siri’s strange world – he has two crack assistants, and a faithful dog named Ugly.
Dtui is his nurse assistant. With a great deal of affection and admiration, she nonetheless has her eyes on Siri’s throne (he would gladly abdicate). She would like to be coroner, which means getting his blessing to go study in the USS., and the hopeful return as an indoctrination-free still-human doctor. She’s sharp as broken glass, smart as all get out, in love with another important character – indeed, three characters (not counting Siri) – and needs USSR training exactly as much as a fish needs a bicycle.
Mr. Geung is another assistant and a gentleman with a mild case of Down’s syndrome, some modestly faulty neural wiring, but possessing a memory like a bear trap (since he worked in the morgue before Siri’s arrival, he is invaluable). He’s got the wits to be Siri’s conscience when Siri’s cynicism gets the better of him – “You were very very very bad. She isn’t ... she isn’t ...s he isn’t a bubblehead. She’s a nice girl....You made her sad.” “Geung, from his other dimension, could recognize the abnormal when he saw it.” Geung may know Siri’s secret, but he isn’t letting on.
Here we must detour back to Comrade Siri, for Siri is not only Siri but also Laos’s honorary consul to the spirit world (known only to him, select intimates, and the entire Hmong nation). Unseen inside his corporeal vessel resides Yeh Ming, a 1,050-year-old Hmong shaman of great reputation and many enemies. Siri is oblivious to this state of affairs, until a visit upcountry to the Hmong reveals his unruly doppelgänger.
It was his eyes that gave him away, the color a numinous electric green, rare eyes for a Lao (rare for anybody). The Hmong knew, and so did the spirits, the good and bad and really bad. “‘A body is easy to shed,’ Tshaj explained, ‘but the eyes will always be there. You can’t replace the river-frog emeralds. Zai, the rainbow spirit, turned two river frogs into emeralds to thank the first shaman for giving him more colors. They’re passed from body to body.’”
This is no sideshow. The spirits disquiet Siri – many are the ghosts of insurgents who died on his operating table during the revolution – and being no adept, he can’t speak with them, only silently commune and try to intuit their gestures, when he isn’t plainly creeped out or running for dear life. But he’s game, and this is Laos, where spirits and animism are quite at home. “Deep down in his agnostic scientific soul, he wanted all this talk of ghosts and mediums to be true. He wanted there to be something else, something illogical. He’d been confined and restricted by science all his life.”
You got it, Dr. Siri, our doctor beatnik in sandals and baggy pants, with eyes nearly impossible to meet, a lover of his few small luxuries – coffee, a book, a good bowl of noodles, an rip-free mosquito net, a bottle of rice whiskey, and one woman – has the spirit in him, and the jones for a good mystery, which “fluttered in his stomach like moths trapped in a jar.”
There are handfuls of peerless, recurring characters, which is one reason why reading the whole series, #1 to #10, is so valuable (that’s not a brain surgeon speaking; most series benefit from the long haul). Cotterill lets his characters age and fall apart, bit by bit; he lets them curry our sympathy, court our distaste, grow on you, slowly pulling back the curtains of their life.
Here is Rajid: “He wore only his sarong, a threadbare old thing. He was an unkempt but very handsome young man who was kept alive by the generosity of the shopkeepers who’d known him since he was a child. They’d never heard him speak.” He sat down by the two old men on their log and started to do something, well, outré. “‘Hello, Rajid.’ ‘Hi, Rajid.’ But he had better things to do than respond.” Much more will be learned about him.
So it goes with Phosy, a policeman, or not, maybe a secret agent, wholly runic, who we will get to know with the same shock as Rajid. The indispensible Teacher Ou and her small stash of forensic chemicals. Blind Pao, totally blind, who nods back when nodded at. Civilai, Siri’s comrade in arms, principled but disdainful politburo member, fixer, the man who can read a bureaucrat’s brains, ready to stir the hornet’s nest; he’s been away from the jungle for too long.
And Madame Daeng, guerrilla turned noodle-soup virtuoso (and many other talents), touched by rheumatism – but to tell any more would raise the flag of spoiler. And in this theater on the absurd, invisible to all but Siri and the animals, are the many spirits, most spookily harmless, one charming to a fault, others unnerving as the furies, enough to find you fumbling, nails bitten to the quick, for the nightlight.
The series is also an encyclopedic "Nagel’s Travel Guide" – those monstrous red-and-white tomes that only the most hardened and curious traveler would consider packing, all the history, culture, and the lay of the land one needs to help find their way. The books’ adventures take the players to towns and to the back of the back of beyond.
In the latest installment, the characters find themselves far to the north, in Muang Sing market, “the Ginza of the Golden Triangle drug trade.” In one of the stories, "Love Songs from a Shallow Grave", Mr. Geung becomes separated from the tribe and must walk seemingly hundreds of miles home, his eyes serving as a running scroll of the landscape – like the kind once unspooled outside the window of a stationary train to give the impression of movement – while Siri intimately visits the killing fields of neighboring Cambodia.
Sometimes the most fleeting are the most moving: early one morning, in a Vientiane park, “a small group of tai chi uncles did combat with invisible slow-motion enemies in the shadow of the great Anusawari Arch.” Or from the heights above Luang Prabang, where “he saw the sun reflect gold from a half dozen temple stupas. Two rivers converged, and a white shrine, like a delicious meringue, sat on top of a hill overlooking the old royal palace” As Siri walked along the side of a creamy brown river, the setting sun walked along the other bank. “He stepped carefully to avoid setting off the dog-fart flowers.”
It is difficult to report on a mystery book without slipping in spoilers. Let it be said that in the new "Six and a Half Deadly Sins" there is a puzzle that requires deciphering of clues as in a treasure hunt. It takes place along the border with China, where “they bleed beetle juice smiles at one another.”
Vietnam has invaded Cambodia, which doesn’t make China happy, so they are about to return the favor: bedroom-farce communism at its best. Siri and Company’s arrival on the trail of a finger sewn into the hem of a distinctive garment that allows us to experience not only the many spirits afoot – a rude bunch of instigators and provocateurs – but the crazy quilt of ethnicities and languages that colonial authorities thought would make a tidy nation-state.
Still, the most hypnotizing part of the story revolves around the cottage-weaving industry in the north, in this case the skirts known as pha sins. Each pattern is as discernible to the tutored eye as a tweed is to a Hebridean or a tartan is to a Celt. Those black and indigo pha sin are from the Lu, a China/Laos cross-border people, while that green could only come from northeastern Myanmar, where the arsenic in the coloring has been killing people since the fixative’s arrival. This is a hallmark of Cotterill’s research: the beguiling ambiance that gels into a sense of place.
What is guaranteed is some immodest drinking, some Lao patter that would make Spenser envious, a crash course in geopolitics, a human villain of mythic proportions, suspicious locals (who have every right to be), and an ending that will play you like one of those metal spinning tops with the crank in the hands of Crazy Rajid.
On an even more surreal and breathtaking note, the books remind us that only 40 years ago, we were dropping napalm and Agent Orange on some Dr. Siri and Civilai and Madame Daeng up there in the caves. That should make you stop and think. It also made for a lot of restless spirits.