The sixth installment in a mystery series about a 73 year-old Laotian national coroner, Dr. Siri. A corpse of a young village woman ends up in his morgue, and he and his team take a personal interest in the case. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Housing is investigating the number and nature of illegal residents in Siri’s government-supplied housing. As he ruminates with a friend, they realize they having seen Crazy Rajid skinny-dipping in some time, and decide to search for the village madman.
Let me be forthright. I am flat-out turned off by the serial killer perspective, virtually guaranteed to dislike any book that includes it as a secondary narrative. For the most part, I manage to avoid it, but every so often, a mystery novelist is tempted to dip their toes into a new narrative, and I get blindsided. When I read the synopsis for The Merry Misogynist, I was tempted to skip it entirely, except Cotterill has been building on Dr. Siri’s emotional and social circle from book to book, and I didn’t want to miss significant life events.
Why? Too often, it’s a crutch towards creating tension and plot movement, a manner of building a sense of impending disaster when the main narrative can’t sustain the mystery or sense of danger. Even more often, the killer viewpoint becomes a window into a show of torture porn. Don’t need it. Don’t want to dwell on it. Lastly, in this particular case, it is a poor narrative choice with the previous series tone, a fact that Dr. Siri and his comrades point out as they discover the killer has multiple victims.
One of the clever hooks of the Dr. Siri series is his connection to the spirits of his homeland, who often show themselves to him in an effort to incite him towards action or vengeance. In this book, the spirits were barely present, appearing only harbingers of doom rather than agents of the dead. Then there was a giant deux ex machina to solve Siri’s (political) humorous housing problem, and did I mention how much I hate the serial killer viewpoint? The combination of women-hating/stalking combined with humorous, ‘let’s make-buffoons-of politicians’ are an inharmonious mix.
But you know what I hate worse than a homicidal viewpoint? Making the serial killer a gender-bender with a domineering mother. Seriously. Seriously. I can’t get over how genderist that is. Just when I think Cotterill has managed to defy convention with his elderly Laotian, socialist protagonist, he pulls out an antique, moth-eaten trope of sexuality that was dated in Victorian times. I’m not pretending any great knowledge of Laotian culture, but I will put forth that third-gender identity is relatively common in the non-Euro-Western world. Thailand in particular has a third-gender tradition, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_ge…) and Cotterill was seemly open to the concept with one of the earlier characters in the series. So why dust off this unenlightened trope in a series built on defying convention? Don’t know. Not sure I care. But I enjoy a good conspiracy, so maybe we can just blame it on the publishing house or something and hope the old Cotterill comes back with the next book.
That said, there were moments of Siri witticisms that worked exceptionally well. Cotterill’s flare for the slightly deconstructed idiom remains. This time, much of the humor is in dialogue or absurd situations with Siri’s house guests while he stays at Madame Daeng’s.
“‘Perhaps you’d like an orange cordial to help you cool down, uncle,” sad lady of the night Gongjai.
‘I don’t want to be cool,’ Siri replied. ‘I want my head as hot as I can make it so you understand I’m not just speaking for my own benefit.’
‘So you don’t want a drink?’ Gongjai tried again.
‘I didn’t say that. I just don’t want you thinking it’s going to make me any calmer.’“
There’s an insightful moment when Siri muses on his years in the jungle and the endangered species he’s eaten: “In those days a man didn’t give a hoot about the survival of an avian family lineage. It was them or us… he believed that if God made you colorful, overweight, and delicious and didn’t give you any survival skills, you deserved to get eaten.” Classic Cotterill–one of those humorous asides that is also so insightful into what the reality of subsistence living is.
I enjoyed Siri’s and Daeng’s intimate version of ‘rock-paper-scissors’–elephant-mouse-ant. “The elephant crushed the mouse, the mouse squashed the ant, and the ant crawled up the elephant’s trunk and paralyzed his brain.”
Overall, enough flavors of the earlier books remained to for me to continue reading, hoping that Cotterill regains his footing in the next.