Other issues that turn out to have some bearing on the case include covert American operations during the seventies, the discovery of gold around the same time, and the legacy the war has left on the landscape, in the villages of Laos and on the minds of the citizens, who are out for whatever they can wangle out of the MIA caper. One of Dr Siri’s first tasks is to find a way to cut down on the vast number of false claims by his opportunistic compatriots who claim to have material that might be connected to a MIA case and are only too happy to sell.

Once that’s out of the way a couple of complications set in. First up, cross-dressing fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo advises Dr Siri that his days are numbered and the count is down to the fingers of one hand. Then, a member of the party is found dead, which begins a train of events that don’t seem to be entirely accidental. 

Smoke from local fires obscures the countryside, which would be fine a few months further down the track, when it would probably be the smoke from locals practising slash and burn agriculture and clearing new patches of ground to farm, but they don’t do that sort of thing at this time of year. Dr. Siri is sure something is going on, and the poor visibility is probably a deliberate smoke screen. Communications with the outside world go down, the group is forced to stay to the point where the prepackaged rations run out, Madame Daeng takes over the catering and as everyone pursues their own agendas mysterious events in the Philippines suggest things are even more complicated than they seem.

Predictably, Siri eventually makes sense of the situation, announces what happened to the pilot and unmasks the murderer within the group, which is, ironically, not the actual point of the story or the series from where I’m sitting. The whole series is increasingly looking like an opportunity for Cotterill to engage in a little sardonic comment through his Laotian mouthpiece on the horrors inflicted on a small country that would have been quite happy to mind its own business but has been forced to suffer as the major powers manipulate events within and outside its borders in the nominal cause of a fight for freedom.

Dona Leon’s Brunetti series provide her with an avenue to write about corruption and related issues in Italy in general and Venice in particular, and I’m leaning towards a belief that Cotterill is engaged in a similar exercise with his humble and wonderfully humane protagonist. Last time around the Khmer Rouge, this time CIA involvement in the remoter corners of Laos. It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with next...

© Ian Hughes 2012