Thursday, January 26, 2012

Slash and Burn

This is the latest in the mystery series featuring Dr. Siri by Colin Cotterill. The setting is the People's Democratic Republic of Laos in 1978. Dr. Siri is the national coroner. He is in his late 70s and really wants to retire. He is surrounded by a group of characters like none other: Mr. Geung, his mortuary assistant with Down Syndrome; Nurse Dtui, his assistant who studies medical texts in Russian; Daeng, Siri's wife who owns a popular noodle shop in Vientiane; Civilai, Siri's oldest friend; and Siri's nemesis, Judge Haeng, who keeps getting the doctor involved in misadventures of death and destruction.

The thing about reading this series (and I have read all eight of them now) is that the characters and the setting are so, well, foreign. Also, humorous and at the same time historical. Laos after the Vietnam War? I am learning much about the political shenanigans that went on during the war. And its aftermath as well.

This particular mystery has to do with a missing American helicopter pilot and the search for his body 10 years after his reported death. There is the murder of the American major sent to investigate. There is an American Senator on the take, his mistress, hired assassins, and a dog, Ugly.

The narrative moves along in a series of scenes from a former CIA compound through the villages and jungles of Laos. The conversations between Siri and Civilai are right on:  two old friends trying to one-up the other with affection and deep commitment to their long-standing friendship.

There is plenty here to keep me interested. The loose ends get tied up. A heartwarming ending. And if my mind drifts during some of the political discussions, well, who cares.

Oh, and the slash and burn? That is a way of regenerating farm land. After a few years of growing crops, the remaining vegetation is cut, or slashed, and once dried is burned. The ashes provide nutrients to the soil.

So there you have it.

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