from Murder by the Book, Portland - mbtb.com
Wednesday, November 30, 2011Slash and Burn, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25)(due 12/6/11)
Colin Cotterill's books starring Dr. Siri Paiboun have been among our most recommended at the store. Dr. Siri is a coroner in 1970s Communist Laos. Actually, Dr. Siri is Laos' ONLY coroner. He gets into plenty of political and criminal hot water because of his irreverent attitude and acute observations, some of which are not of this world. It sometimes helps and sometimes hurts that he can see ghosts. One particular soul who haunts Siri is an ancient Hmong shaman. The books have humor and warmth, they speak about a time and locale that are beyond the personal knowledge of most of Cotterill's readers, and they also incorporate serious political and cultural issues that affected Southeast Asia at the time.
So it was with great sadness that I read the announcement that this would be the last Dr. Siri book.
Slash and Burn is not as brilliant as Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, its immediate predecessor, but it constitutes a fond enough farewell to Siri.
A MIA U.S. helicopter pilot who worked for Air America (now widely accepted as a CiA/drug-running outfit) is the subject of a search by a joint U.S./Lao group. Ten years after his helicopter crashed, there is evidence that he might still be alive. Dr. Siri is roped into being a member of the team. He, in turn, ropes his wife, morgue colleagues, and best friend into accompanying him. The flamboyant, psychic, and cross-dressing Auntie Bpoo sneaks aboard. She claims she's there to prevent Siri's death, which she has foreseen on her psychic channel.
After a helicopter trip into the remote area where the investigation will begin, after truck rides in which no rut or pothole is left unfelt, after figuring out how the U.S. and Laotian sides will communicate, and especially after a murder occurs, Siri and his gang realize this will be a real busman's holiday.
Goodbye to the intuitive and wise Dr. Siri. Goodbye to his gun-toting, ex-rebel, noodle-making wife Daeng. Goodbye to competent Nurse Dtui and her macho police officer husband Phosy. Goodbye to sweet, mentally challenged morgue attendent Geung. Goodbye to sarcastic former politico Civilai. Goodbye to Ugly, the dog Siri discovers and adopts in this book; we hardly knew ye. Goodbye, even, to weasley Judge Haeng, Siri's incompetent nemesis. But it's not goodbye to Colin Cotterill.
Recently released Killed at the Whim of a Hat was Cotterill's first non-Siri book. It, too, is a winner and has the same lovely blend of humor and seriousness. Nevertheless, we can all have a group hug and together shuffle over to the Kleenex box.*
* A pop culture reference to the last scene in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," still one of the funniest sad scenes ever.
Monday, November 28, 2011
There are many interesting things about this book, including an unusual astrologer/detective and his crusading lawyer daughter. However, there's also a disconcerting mixture of mostly polite talk with a lot of incongruous heavy-duty swearing. David Lowell, the astrologer, is a beer connoisseur à la Nero Wolfe, prickly personality, gentleman, and aikido black belt. His daughter's client is quick-tempered Joanna "Johnny" Colbert, a foul-mouthed bartender accused of murdering a judge.
Reasons to keep reading: Johnny has a gambling problem, so there's an interesting and sobering aside on the mechanics of gambling addiction. I quite enjoyed the fact that Lowell is wealthy, and he made his money in the stock market by using astrology. There are spots of humor, especially with Lowell's secretary, and they were good touches.
Things that make you close your eyes: Johnny develops a crush on the much older and more sophisticated Lowell, and there's an awkward moment or two as his daughter, Melinda, seems to sanction it. Although the book is written in the third person, the only character who is fleshed out is Lowell. It's classic amateur sleuthing meets political thriller meets My Fair Lady, and the mishmash is dizzying.
There's a lot of potential for turning this into an interesting series. Had Johnny's swearing not been so graphically portrayed, the story would have been smoother and better defined. Or, conversely, maybe everyone else should have been harder-boiled.