The Maigret of the Mekong
Open one of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries and transport yourself to a literary universe unlike any other. “Superstition, religion, and custom often overlapped in Laos,” Cotterill writes in The Coronor’s Lunch (Book #1), a description that perfectly sets the tenor for the whole series. Don’t Eat Me, the thirteenth and most recent installment, continues the tradition with an irresistible mystery immersed in Laotian folklore and politics—and told with a wry, cynical sense of humor.
The annals of crime fiction have never before seen a doctor-cum-amateur sleuth like Dr. Siri Paiboun, our guide through this labyrinthine intersection of history and fantasy. The septuagenarian is the only coroner left in Laos after the Communist Pathet Lao overtook the country in 1975. The Maigret of the Mekong, Siri’s work with cadavers often leads to extracurricular activities where he gets to impersonate his favorite literary character, Georges Simenon’s iconic French detective. Siri also has nightly visitations from the deceased in his dreams, including a transvestite fortune teller named Auntie Bpoo who provides cryptic hints in the form of poems. Oh, and by the way, he’s the reincarnation of a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman named Yeh Ming.
There’s nothing by-the-book about Dr. Siri. Not that he has many books to refer to, anyway. It is a time of economic depression, and the government can’t be bothered to get him updated textbooks in languages he can read. Nor does he fully understand his ancestral spirit, Yeh Ming, or how to communicate at-will with the ghosts that won’t leave him alone. A coroner’s work—and a spiritualist’s—is a learning process for Siri.
Siri has his battles cut out for him. Struggling to run his lab with insufficient government funding and out-dated tools (many stolen from laboratories during the French occupation); butting heads with thick-headed bureaucrats; trying to sleep through early morning political addresses from a nearby public PA speaker; dealing with nosy neighbors in public housing quarters; and then there are the phibob, malevolent spirits that haunt the forests and dislike Siri—and Yeh Ming—meddling in their mystic ways.
Assisting Siri on his cases—and helping him survive the quotidian challenges of daily life—are Dtui, a young female nurse who aspires to travel to the Soviet Union for her medical license, and Geung, a young man who the rest of Vientiane looks down upon because of his Down Syndrome but who Siri and Dtui cherish because of his exceptional memory and invaluable on-the-job skills as a coroner’s assistant. Throughout the series, other characters, such as Madame Daeng, a noodle-shop owner and future Mrs. Paiboun who plays the Nora Charles to Siri’s Nick, and Phosy an inspector with the National Police Force and future husband of Dtui, join their motley family. Then there’s Civilai, a politician, and Siri’s best friend; the two of them frequently eat baguettes by the river at lunchtime, sharing their cynical viewpoints on politics. All of them go above and beyond the call of duty out of their love for Siri, as well as their shared passion for adventure.
Siri and his extended family are all reunited for Don’t Eat Me. In typical Cotterill fashion, Don’t Eat Me begins with a surreal crime that defies logic: a woman trapped in a wooden cage, surrounded by nineteen glowing eyes with a ravenous appetite. Later, a skeleton covered in animal bites is discovered in front of the Anusawari Victory Arch after curfew. The only vehicle in the area that late at night was a government limousine, which was seen being driven by an inebriated official. Meanwhile, Inspector Phosy has to pull in Siri and Civilai who were seen smuggling arms across the river. Little does he realize that it wasn’t arms, but a movie camera, fallen off the truck in Thailand during the shooting of The Deer Hunter. Now, Siri and Civilai have to figure out how to get past the government censors and film their magnum opus, an adaptation of War and Peace transported to Laos and loosely based on their own lives.
Corpses, corrupt government officials, and communiques from the spirit world—it’s all in a day’s work for Siri and company.
New readers should not be trepidatious about jumping into the series with Don’t Eat Me—its self-contained story is a perfect introduction to Cotterill’s charming cast of characters and one-of-a-kind fantastic twist on the mystery genre. Cotterill proves that the supernatural is more than just a vehicle for adolescent desires or a thing-that-goes-bump-in-the-night; instead, he approaches mysticism with an anthropological empathy. He explores the deep cultural roots of spiritualism in Laotian culture and its variety of forms and beliefs. Reading the whole series exposes you the diversity of Laotian identity, its many regional identities, groups, and religions. Cotterill’s rejection of a homogeneous approach to Laos is what gives the series such depth and richness, and what makes returning such a rewarding and engaging experience.
Readers wishing to go in order have a wealth of discoveries at their fingertips. The Coroner’s Lunch (Book #1) finds Siri, Dtui, and Geung investigating the sudden death of a prominent politician’s wife. When Siri is pressured to declare the death the result of natural causes and release the body, he finds himself up against the entire bureaucratic system. Something’s afoot in Vientiane in Thirty-Three Teeth (Book #2): a government worker leaps out of a window and onto a bicyclist; a royal chest that resists all attempts to open it might turn out to be haunted; there’s an escaped bear believed to be attacking citizens in the dead-of-night and it has been seen outside of Siri’s domicile. Normal? Far from it, but what in Dr. Siri’s world ever is? Thirty-Three Teeth was also the winner of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s Dilys Award, given to titles that booksellers most enjoyed selling. In Disco for the Departed (Book #3), Geung takes center stage when he is kidnapped and must make a cross-country trek on foot while evading his captors. Meanwhile, Siri is called to a former Pathet Lao cave to investigate a body buried in concrete. And just who is playing that subversive American disco music so loud late at night, anyway?
Cotterill’s titles chart the surreal path that Siri’s life takes. In Anarchy and Old Dogs (Book #4), Siri discovers a political message written in invisible ink on the body of a dentist run over in the street. Cotterill also introduces the fortune teller Bpoo in this book, a character who will come to haunt Siri’s dreams in books to come. Hmong villagers kidnap Siri to get his spirit, Yeh Ming, to perform an exorcism in Curse of the Pogo Stick (Book #5). The Merry Misogynist (Book #6) finds the doctor investigating a series of murders in which women are tied to trees and strangled. Siri is interrupted from looking into a series of fencing sword murders in Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (Book #7) when he has to travel to Cambodia to deal with the Khmer Rouge and the horrendous “Killing Fields.” Siri contemplates retirement in Slash and Burn (Book #8) while investigating a downed US pilot. And the dead come back to life in The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (Book #9), in which a woman murdered during a home invasion reappears days later with clairvoyant powers.
Not only do Cotterill’s characters continue to grow throughout the series, but Cotterill also continues to dig deeper into Laotian culture for his stories, and takes his characters to new geographic regions. Pha sins are traditional woven skirts, but they don’t traditionally have severed fingers sewn into them. In Six and a Half Deadly Sins (Book #10), Siri receives one such pha sin in the mail and traces its origins from village to village, tracing a legacy of Lao artisans to get to the bottom of the mysterious package. In I Shot the Buddha (Book #11), a Buddhist monk is kidnapped but has left a note for Siri to help a fellow monk defect across the river back to Thailand. Meanwhile, Phosy has been been called to investigate the claim that an auto mechanic is the reincarnation of Buddha. This is perhaps Siri and company’s wildest adventure yet, culminating in an epic battle with spirits and monkey women. And Laos’ top athletes step into the international spotlight as they are invited to the Soviet Union in The Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Book #12). Accompanying them are Siri, Daeng, and Dtui, and wherever they go, trouble is never far behind. Back home in Vientiane, Phosy’s investigates a last-minute athlete substitution that he believes might be part of an assassination conspiracy.
Cotterill is full of surprises. He not only sustains and develops a charming cast of characters but also continually reinvents classic mystery scenarios, invigorating popular plot motifs with his boundless imagination and giving them a distinctly Laotian twist. From the poisoned spouse of The Coroner’s Lunch to the courtroom drama of Don’t Eat Me, and the follow-the-thread (literally) narrative of Six and a Half Deadly Sins to the assassination conspiracy of The Rat Catcher’s Olympics, he reimagines the limitless possibilities of a mystery series.
If you’ve finished Don’t Eat Me, you might be wondering, what’s in store next for Dr. Siri? But you should know the answer is something you’ll never be able to guess. Until then, relish discovering—or re-reading—the fantastic lives and cases of Dr. Siri Paiboun and his marvelous friends and family.
THE CORONER'S LUNCH, the first book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun Mysteries, is available for $9.99 PB / $7.99 EB. PURCHASE HERE
"This whole thing started and finished with her. She was in a crate. A compact coconut wood coffin with narrow slits for air. She’d screamed over and over to no avail. She’d tried to make sense of it. She’d counted the unblinking eyes. Nineteen of them. One eye too many or one too few, but nineteen by every reckoning. And even though there was no light beneath the thick tarpaulin those eyes glowed deep yellow like dying stars ..." READ AN EXCERPT