Written by Colin Cotterill — It’s the late 1970s in Laos, and Dr Siri Paiboun, retired coroner for the Laotian Communist Party, drags himself once again out of retirement to solve a mystery. It all starts when Siri receives in the mail an elaborately embroidered skirt with a severed finger sewn into the hem. His wife, Madame Daeng, proprietress of the local noodle shop that has just recently burned down, determines that the skirt, called a sin, is of a weave customary in the north. Siri and Daeng can hardly resist a true mystery, and the promise of adventure appeals to the elderly couple, who in truth have little else to do. So they embark on a journey north to investigate.
Siri and Daeng meet a succession of weavers. Each weaver hands them a new sin with a new clue lead them to a neighboring province. Who is behind the complicated treasure hunt of tribal weaving styles and clues, and what message are they trying to convey with a severed finger, a scroll, and a pipe stem?
Meanwhile, their mutual friend policeman Phosy is sent to investigate the suspicious deaths of some workers near the Chinese border. Here he runs into a very menacing foreman who threatens him. Siri’s old friend Civilai, a former politburo chief, is also sent in that general direction to ease some tense relations with the Chinese.
Siri and Daeng, who are not getting any younger, start to feel ill during their journey. To complicate matters, it seems they are heading towards a perfect storm: the news in town is that China has invaded Vietnam via Laos. By this time, they’ve run into their old diplomat friend Civilai, and all three stumble upon a cache of heroin and run afoul of a local drug lord. Along the way they are helped by a number of people whose potential is inhibited by the repressive regime and its absurd policies.
Cotterill’s gift for creating sympathetic characters that live and breathe is evident in this latest installment of the exotic Dr Siri series. His use of a locale serves less as colourful backdrop than an infusion of South East Asian history and culture. Cotterill’s sympathy for Laos might come off as didactic were it not so thoroughly tempered with his winning brand of wry humour, sprinkled with gems of wisdom thrown by the simple brave folk who sit by the Mekong River.
As the old couple soldier on, their health gets progressively worse. When they finally come to the last sin, and their last legs, it leads them to the mysterious creator of the clues. We learn of the horror that the sins represent, which also leads them to meet one of their oldest enemies. Cotterill skillfully brings together the three parallel investigations of Siri, Phosy, and Civilai, which meet to form an intricate central mystery as tightly woven as a Lao skirt. As is typical of these books, the final confrontation is quite harrowing and violent, wherein one of the characters dies twice, and we briefly visit the spirit realm. Welcome to Dr Siri’s world.
Although this book stands up alone as a very entertaining one, it is actually the 10th in a series of adventures starring the septuagenarian coroner, and it is probably the last. At this point, loyal readers of the series may feel let down a bit by the vague nature of the book’s ending, which teases a finality without truly spelling it out. For this reviewer, here’s hoping Cotterill launches a prequel series from Siri’s early days.
Read our review of the earlier Dr Siri book, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, by clicking here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars