Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mystery Book Review: Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill

Anarchy and Old Dogs by
A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery

Soho Crime (Trade Paperback)
ISBN-10: 1-56947-501-6 (1569475016)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-501-0 (9781569475010)
Publication Date: August 2008
List Price: $12.00

Review: Colin Cotterill’s Anarchy and Old Dogs, the fourth in his Dr. Siri Paiboun series, serves up another history/mystery with a distinctly Asian flavour. And with the seventy-three year old comically eccentric coroner and his wannabee CSI team wandering around Laos, Vietnam and Thailand looking for ghosts, lost children, murderers, and ideological roots and revolutionaries past and present, it’s just as appealing as each of its predecessors.

Cotterill’s books, this one included, are delightfully humorous as Dr. Siri goes about his business of solving murders, saving his own aging skin and bending and breaking the rules of the political regime under which he works. In Anarchy, he sets out to discover why a blind man, a former dentist, was run down by an army logging truck in August 1977 on a street where “two cars passing at the same time would be considered a traffic jam.” In his search he finds the man’s widow and a set of codes written in invisible ink, which he partially deciphers, at least enough to learn a revolution is brewing. Meanwhile, a government official has been electrocuted in a Russian-built electrically-warmed bathtub and he must investigate that death as well. This leads him to travel to the city of Pakse, “a city built on greed” and “the seat of the royal underpants.” For support, he takes along his best friend, Civilai Songsawat, a septuagenarian bureaucrat who has become “a cocktail Party member.” As the two search for clues to the murder, the electrocution and the possible political coup, they reminisce about the good old days of their idealism in ousting the French from their Laos homeland. And unexpectedly they are confronted with the bizarre drowning of a schoolboy who “could swim before he could walk.” There’s additional action and more adventures when Nurse Dtui and Officer Phosy, two other members of Dr. Siri’s hometown entourage pose as a married couple and set out to follow him, but end in a refugee camp where their own lives are endangered.

As in his earlier books, Cotterill uses this one to detail the history of the regional conflicts and the ravages and political upsets that resulted from them. But whether it is life on the streets or in the refugee camp or in the recollections of ‘the old dogs’ during their bouts of drunken revelry, the history in the book always remains an appropriate background for the mysteries of the deaths and the impending coup. Cotterill makes excellent use of humour as well, especially in an episode with Nurse Dtui and Officer Phosy escaping the refugee camp with the unwitting help of Brother Fred of the Church of the Christian Brotherhood. The search for the Devil’s Vagina adds some sauce as well. And almost every page has a memorable phrase or two. Coffee, for example, becomes strong enough to “cut through a hangover like a cyclone through a barn,” while a drop of rain falls “as thick and heavy as a cow pat,” and Siri mixes his cocktails as “half rice whisky and the other half rice whisky.” The solutions to the deaths, whether by truck, electrocution or drowning, are teasingly spun out, while the revelation about who is the source for the coup comes as a shocking surprise. The ensemble cast of characters is memorable too with the transvestite fortune-telling, Auntie Bpoo, gaining more than his/her fifteen minutes of fame and exiting with a prediction that by the Lao New Year the seventy-three-year-old Dr. Siri would be married and he “and his new bride would have two bouncing baby boys” – even more reason to safely predict that the next novel in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series will be another enticing five star entertainment.

Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham ([email protected]) for contributing his review of Anarchy and Old Dogs and to Soho Press for providing a trade paperback edition of the book for the review.

Review Copyright © 2008 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved — Reprinted with Permission

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Synopsis (from the publisher): A blind retired dentist has been run down by a logging truck on the street in Vientiane just opposite the post office. His body is duly delivered to the morgue of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the official and only coroner of Laos. At the age of seventy-three, Dr. Siri is too old to be in awe of the new Communist bureaucrats for whom he now works. He identifies the corpse, helped by the letter in the man’s pocket. But first he must decipher it; it is written in code and invisible ink. The dentist’s widow explains that the enigmatic letters and numbers describe chess moves, but they are unlike any chess symbols Siri has previously encountered. With the help of his old friend, Civilai, now a senior member of the Laos politburo, and of Nurse Dtui (“Fatty”), Phosy, a police officer, and Aunt Bpoo, a transvestite fortune-teller, Dr. Siri solves the mystery of the note to the blind dentist and foils a plot to overthrow the government of Laos.

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