The Thirty-Three Teeth

Monday, 11 October 2010

You get the feeling, early in a series, that the author's experimenting with some aspects of the developing cast of characters, and I definitely got that impression as I read the second Dr Siri mystery, The Thirty-Three Teeth.

With the basic cast in place, Cotterill seems to have decided to pursue the mystic/spirit world side of Siri to see where it leads, and at the same time fill in a bit of background with some of the supporting characters, particularly Nurse Dtui.

The story's set in 1977 two years after the Pathet Lao takeover, with the new regime consolidating power, sending the royal family into internal exile, banning festivals where anti-revolutionary groups might gather, and attempting to persuade the spirit world to toe the Party line. In a hilarious set-piece, they summon the imperial capital's shamans to lay down the law but prove incapable of maintaining order in the spirit world. 

The story begins with a Malay Black bear escaping from the zoo garden of Vientiane’s Lan Xang Hotel and a Sunday afternoon session involving Siri, Civilai and a bottle of Mostovskaya vodka. 

Arriving at work monstrously hungover, Siri starts a post-mortem on two men found in the middle of the street apparently sharing a bicycle. He identifies one as a government official (purple fingers or triplicate syndrome from endless copying of documents for the bureaucracy). That leads the investigation to the Ministry of Sport, Information and Culture where, with Inspector Phosy, he discovers a malignant teak box, carved with elephants and the crest of the royal family. 

Before that investigation gets much further, another corpse arrives at the morgue: a lady who seems to have been mauled by a large animal and Siri is summoned to Luang Prabang to work on a couple of charred bodies. Delighted to escape from Vientiane's heat, Siri diagnoses the cause of death and identifies the corpses as Asians killed in a helicopter crash. That finding doesn't go down well with the Party leadership. 

While he's in the neighbourhood, Siri takes the chance to catch up with his sister-in-law, which in turn leads to a mysteriously abandoned orchard, where a gardener is making a futile attempt at pruning. Subsequent discussions help to establish connections between the charred bodies and the malignant box back in Vientiane before he attends the gathering of shamans called by the Party to give the spirits an ultimatum: Obey Party orders or get out.

From The Coroner's Lunch, we knew that Siri is the reincarnation of his ancestor Yeh Ming, so he fits right into the shaman conference, establishing spiritual connections that help solve these cases and reawakening the phibob, malevolent ghosts seeking revenge after the coroner's previous activities.  With the help of the royal shaman Siri learns what the phibob are up to, fills in the details of his own early life, survives the phibob assault, an unmasks the king's betrayer. 

All in all, not a bad couple of days' work.

Back in Vientiane, bodies are continuing to pile up in the morgue, apparently killed by the large animal - possibly the escaped bear or perhaps something more mystical, possibly a weretiger. 

With Siri out of town, Dtui is left to investigate the killings, which leads to an unpleasant encounter with a Russian circus trainer. Dtui gains access to secret Party files, becomes the only one in town arguing against the death warrant on the bear and then disappears, leaving Siri to find the whatever it is that has been on the rampage. There's a full moon, three victims already in the morgue, and three or four hours left to find Dtui before she becomes the fourth.

Along the way, Dtui has filled out into out a feisty character with well-hidden depths of character who could turn into a pretty effective foil for Super Spirit Doc. 

© Ian Hughes 2012