The second installment in the mystery series featuring Dr. Siri, my favorite coroner and host of an ancient ‘s spirit. While it contains the ingredients that make the series great, there are several stumbles that make this book more of a leftover noodle soup–a nice accompaniment to a meal but not enough for a feast.
In the beginning, several sidewinding storylines provided a great deal of pleasure. In Vientiane, two disparate bodies found with a badly damaged bicycle send the team of Siri, Dtui and Phosy to the Ministry of Sport, Information and Culture, initiating one of the spirit mysteries of the book and providing opportunity to comment on bureaucracy under communism. Before they are able to investigate fully, they are challenged by another death which appears to be an animal mauling. Unfortunately, shortly after the cases are begun, Siri is sent away on business by Judge H. The royal capital has two badly burned corpses and needs to discover their nationality.
Siri’s trip to the royal capital was delightful on many levels. We glimpse into Siri’s upbringing, watch as he investigates the two burn victims and applaud as he attends a political meeting for shamans that is truly guffaw-worthy. There’s also a lovely piece involving a special orchard, some terrible wine, a gardener and a cricket.
At the instigation of Siri’s friend Civilai, Dtui takes matters into her own hands and visits a Russian animal trainer for more information on animal attacks. While I welcomed the opportunity to see Dtui in action, it did strike me that she was a strangely modern feminist for a 1970s Laotian who hasn’t ever left the country. I found myself distracted from the storyline, wondering how real she could be as a character, and if she was supposed to instead serve as an identifier for the modern reader.
For me, a significant part of the shortcomings were structural: it seemed a little more disjointed and a little less tightly woven than the first in the series. There’s narrative jumping, both with dream/vision sequences and changes in narrative voice, as well as time jumping. For the first time, narration from some of the victims is provided at their death scene, and not by spiritual visitation. It’s a technique that doesn’t work as well with the general tone of the book, lending itself more to horror than the wistful spiritual sadness we’ve seen before. While it was likely intended to build suspense, the result was more puzzlement than anticipation. In one section, Siri secretly buries a blanket-wrapped bundle in the backyard. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment, without explanation or context, that it starts when he and the bundle suddenly appear on his bike and ends shortly after with the burial. Some chapters later, Siri thinks of the bundle in the midst of a conversation and makes a mental note that explains the bundle. There’s a number of similar scenes, and I found the style more puzzling than insightful.
As always, I thoroughly loved the touches of humor threading through the book. Supporting characters have their moments to shine as well, particularly when Dtui fends off an animal trainer. Phosy as well: “They sat together on the lip of the fountain, Phosy binding the wound, Rajid going through his impressive repertoire of amphibian impersonations.”
The crimes are a little more brutal in this book, and the political commentary more judgemental. “So there it was in a nutshell. Poverty lead him to religion, religion to education, education to lust, lust to communism. And communism had brought him back full circle to poverty.” At a gathering of shamans, “it was all most sociable, but terribly un-socialist.” Ultimately, I was very disappointed in the reveal at the end. [ The death of a dog seemed particularly spiteful, and it was unclear what the purpose was, except perhaps to integrate another ghost element. The underground tunnel scene with a deranged serial murderer has more of a thriller feel to me, going for cheap scares over true tension, and it felt incongruous with the world Cotterill has developed. (hide spoiler)] Nonetheless, I consider this book an exception to a generally enjoyable series. Four stars for the beginning, three for the end.