There can never be too many books in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. A French-trained surgeon, Siri found himself dragooned into the role of chief coroner for the country of Laos. In fact, Siri is the only coroner in Laos. Siri may be based in Vientiane but the entire country is his domain.
SLASH AND BURN opens in a helicopter above Laos in August, 1968. Boyd Bowry is an American in a place he is not supposed to be. Suddenly, he loses altitude and Boyd Bowry is left to spend ten years in the jungles of Laos.
Siri has repeatedly submitted his resignation to the authorities. He doesn’t want to be coroner, he never wanted to be coroner. What he wants now is to spend his time with his wife, talking to the customers at her noodle shop, discussing politics with his best friend Civilai, and “his nights stretched out against a triangular pillow in his illicit backroom library reading French literature and philosophy. Dallying through to the early morning with comrades Sartre and Hugo and Voltaire. Really. All he had to do is stay out of trouble. For anyone else this might not have been too much to ask. But this was no simple man. This was Dr. Siri Paiboun: seventy-four years of age, forty-eight years an unconvincing member of the Communist Party, host to a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman spirit, culturally tainted beyond redemption by ten years in Paris. Emotionally numbed to the horrors of injury and death by years of battlefront surgery, Dr. Siri felt he had earned himself the right to be an ornery old geezer. And, no. Staying out of trouble for two months was no easy task for such a complicated man.”
Trouble arrives in the form of a letter requesting that Dr. Siri become a member of a joint Lao-American team tasked with discovering if there are bodies of American service men in Laos. Despite his wife’s misgivings (she knows him too well) Siri agrees as long as he can bring his own team. “And, with no pressure whatsoever from you, no coercion or bribery, the minister accepts the list of names you put together for a task force to head off into the jungole with the Americans. And your list just happens to include your wife, your nurse and her husband, your morgue assistant, and your best friend.” Madame Daeng (the wife), Dtui (the nurse), Inspector Phosy (the husband), Mr Geung (the morgue assistant who has Down’s Syndrome), and Civilai ( the best friend and long-time indifferent member of the Politburo) will be the Laotian team working with the American team consisting of professional investigators and scientists and a US senator and Peach, the daughter of American missionaries who speaks the Laotian language as if it is her own (it is). The trip into the jungle is scheduled to last five days and as Siri assures his wife, “Trust me. Nothing can go wrong this time.”
Because this is a Siri adventure, plenty will go wrong. The investigation turns into a locked room mystery when circumstances combine to keep the group together in a cabin in the jungle and, of course, some people will be found dead. American involvement in Vietnam was a quagmire and Laos played a part in the disaster. SLASH AND BURN is set during the period of time when some in the United States saw the country emerging as a colonial power with nations there for their exploitation.
To add to the complications, Auntie Bpoo, a cross-dressing man, has informed Siri that his days are numbered in the single digits.
Colin Cotterill has been gifting the reading world with a series that has a cast of characters that won’t be found anywhere else and a setting that is very rare in fiction. This is southeast Asia after the Americans have withdrawn from Vietnam. The author mentions Air America, the cargo and passenger airline that was created by the CIA to support and monitor covert activity in southeast Asia. If there are any readers too young to remember the Vietnam war, Air America is an interesting story.
It is not necessary to read the Dr. Siri series in order but to not read them at all is a mistake. They are funny, informative, unique, and a great addition to the genre. I am ready for number nine.