★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Dr. Siri series follows Laos’s only coroner, a medical doctor and cynical party member of the socialist government. In the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri begins to experience dreams in which the ghosts of some of his dead clients speak to him, and for a while, neither he nor the reader are entirely sure what is true. I enjoyed the characterization of the series a great deal, as well as insight into a different cultural and political system. I read through the series until two issues in the sixth book, The Merry Misogynist were so irritating that I couldn’t force myself to the seventh. Reading Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series, however, had me nostalgic for the elderly shenanigans of Dr. Siri and his cohorts, so when I saw this offered on Edelweiss, I decided to give it a try.
What a pleasant surprise! I felt like we had returned to the sassy confidence of Dr. Siri in the first few books, along with the expected impish insubordination from him and Comrade (Minister) Civilai, one of Siri’s oldest friends, both literally and figuratively. In this book, the Olympics are being hosted by the Soviet Union, and they’ve invited all the socialist countries. Civilai is appointed the nominal leader of the delegation, but it appears Siri won’t be invited:
“‘They said they’d sooner bring in a monkey than have you represent Laos at an international event. They think you’re a liability. That you’ll embarrass the Party.'”
Without too much delay, Siri gets himself and his wife Madame Daeng invited by harassing the Vice Minister of Health:
“‘Ah, the land of opportunity,’ said Siri. ‘Just think what you might become when you turn twenty-five.’
‘I’m forty-seven,’ said the Vice Minister, more eager to correct the math than to tackle the sarcasm.”
They’re headed to Russia with the Laotian team of shooters, boxers, runners and a race-walker. The Laotians are wide-eyed country rubes in the big city, but one of the charms of the story is their fascination with city luxuries and conveniences. Civilai is there to encourage them despite their inevitable defeat:
“‘It’s not whether you win or lose that’s important, it’s how you play the game.’ He looked at the observers from the ministry. ‘Marx said that.'”
When one of the boxers appears to have murdered a local woman, things turn serious. Siri and Civilai are convinced of the man’s innocence and concerned about the inadequacy of the local investigation. Comrade Inspector Phosy is back at home in Laos and starts investigating from his end.
The humor ranges from broad to subtle, and the tongue-in-cheek tone is always one of the delights of the series. The murder mystery is decent, albeit convoluted, and made a sort of sense. At the same time, there’s more serious undertones with the Laotian government and it’s new era of reform. The characters are fun, but generally played more broadly than subtlely. Apparently Madame Daeng now has a tail from their recent adventures. There’s a small plot involving Siri’s largely absent spirit guide, but in this case it doesn’t have much effect on the mystery, only an ill monk back in Laos. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, rather like having a familiar noodle dish for dinner–nothing earth-shattering, but still tasty and warming.
Many thanks to Edelweiss and Soho Crime for providing me a copy to read!