Slash and Burn

Monday 18 February 2013

Slash and Burn.jpg

Having finished the eighth title in Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri series, one can’t help feeling the Slash and Burn in the title is reflected in an authorial desire to move on to fresh ground, in much the same way as practitioners of shifting agriculture are forced to when their current patch starts to run out of nutritional steam. 

Having noted the existence of a new Cotterill series (Jimm Juree as the protagonist, two titles, Killed At The Whim Of A Hat and Granddad, There's a Head on the Beach to date) and the near death experience in Siri #7 (Love Songs From a Shallow Grave) it seemed safe to assume that we’d reached the end of the road as far at the National Coroner of the People’s Republic of Laos was concerned, but here we are with an eighth title and the possibility of intermittent episodes to come, a possibility that came to pass with the appearance of The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die at the start of this year.

Cotterill had, in other words wound things up, but left the way open for a sequel since, while Dr Siri Paiboun is looking down the barrel of a ninth decade (he’s pushing eighty, and is still, however reluctantly in the work force) and might be on the verge of actually retiring, there’s always the possibility his services might be needed (purely on an ad hoc basis, you understand) in the future. 

This time around, with the paperwork relating to actual retirement lodged and apparently accepted, Dr Siri might be looking forward to retirement, coffee mornings overlooking the Mekhong, leisurely noodle lunches at his wife Daeng’s shop, long evenings of talking rice whisky nonsense with ex-politburo man Civilai, and nights stretched out against a triangular pillow in his illicit back room library reading French literature and philosophy, but he’s asked to undertake one last assignment.

In 1968 Capt. Boyd Bowry, son of a U.S. senator, went Missing In Action, presumed dead after the helicopter he was piloting exploded over a remote jungle village in northern Laos. With the American involvement in Indochina over, they’ve turned their attention to the servicemen registered as MIA, and given Bowry’s parentage, his disappearance is going to be given a higher priority than might otherwise be the case.

Having appointed Dr. Siri’s nemesis Judge Haeng to head the Lao contingent in the investigation, you and I might suspect Siri is the last person Haeng would want included in the excursion, but the Americans know there’s a National Coroner and have asked for him by name.

Seizing the opportunity, Dr Siri engages in a bit of coercion (well, blackmail really) to have his wife and his regular crowd of cronies included in what looks to be a preretirement junket, which is how he manages to get Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung, Dtui’s husband Inspector Phosy, ex-Politburo member Civilai and transvestite/fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo in on the action, joining a number of colourful Americans including the pompous US senator complete with white suit who’s there for the photo opportunity when they find the body, a a loudmouthed heavy-drinking ex-serviceman with a dodgy past. 

Since Siri speaks little English he’ll need an interpreter, which explains Auntie Bpoo, and since American need one of their own we get a highly attractive girl named Peach, born in Laos to an American missionary couple, a Lao heart “forced to live in this big awkward farang body” (her words) with a sense of humour and looks guaranteed to break vast numbers of hearts with Judge Haeng being an obvious starter in that department.

They’re off to the Friendship Hotel, a remote location on the Plain of Jars, with the Americans supplying transportation and prepackaged meals, and the location, a decrepit building in the middle of a field of unexploded ordinance raises issues involving the carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam war era.


© Ian Hughes 2012