It’s a new genre–the magical mystery (and if you finished the sentence with “tour,” stop reading and click here: http://youtu.be/YVdiqwoCbH4
Dr. Siri, a member of the Communist Party for forty-seven years, has been made the first coroner in the new republic. We meet him sharing a case with a judge who has a talent for inappropriate mottos and is not “even bright enough for sarcasm.” Dr. Siri, being twenty-two years past his normal lifespan, has reached a certain passivity in life that is about to be woken up by ghosts. The occult element is introduced well, first discovered in a history of vivid dreams, then appearing in that hazy time in between sleep and awakening, so neither Dr. Siri nor the reader are entirely certain what is real and what is imagined. However, the ghosts are leaving him with insight into their death, too coincidental to be entirely imagined. In a flashback we learn that Comrade Kham is the senior party member who told Siri of his new and reluctantly accepted position serving the Party, and the stage is set for danger when Kham’s wife becomes his next coroner’s case. Troubles only increase when he is brought a second body of a Vietnamese man who appears to have been tortured and drowned.
Dr. Siri is one of the more interesting narrators I’ve met in a long while. The author nicely captures the voice of a weary elderly person, but placing him in Communist Laos in the 1970s is sheer narrative genius. By following Siri through his duties, we’re given insight into a society and time period most readers know little about. His irreverent thoughts about his political party, while full of affection for his people, is part of what makes reading so enjoyable. “If the truth were to be told, he was a heathen of a communist.” We are never specifically told he is disaffected, but the wry tone makes it clear: “It was the authorities’ gift to the people. They didn’t want a single man, woman, or child to miss out on the heart-swelling pride that comes from resurfacing a road or dredging a stream.“
The surrounding characters are entertaining as well, and while they could be a little more developed, they are fleshed out enough to be more than mere props. Dtui, the comic-reading nurse, and Geung, the assistant with Down’s syndrome, are his morgue assistants, and prove to be invaluable allies as he attempts to solves the various cases. Their interactions bring enjoyable touches of humanity to Siri, as do his brainstorming sessions with the eccentric Comrade Civilai.
Overall, the style reminds me of The Number One Ladies Detective Agency Volume 6, without rose-colored glasses. There’s acknowledgement of the brutality of revolution and of corruption within the system, but it’s dealt with in a forthright manner and only enhances the mystery. In fact, one of the joys of the book is how Siri manipulates the system, demonstrates compassion and fixes a number of injustices. The writing is atmospheric without drowning in description, and has something of poetry about it. If you are a fan of the character-driven mystery, I enthusiastically recommend this book. I’m looking forward to reading the next installments in the series, and even re-reading this one.
Best character summation ever:
“There was nothing fake or added about him. He was all himself.”
Most apt description of memory failure:
“He put his hand on his forehead and scoured the French department of his memory for a word. He knew it was in there. He’d put it in almost fifty years before and hadn’t had cause to remove it. But for the life of him he couldn’t find it.”
Four out of five elderly stars